Shi'ite protest marks 6th anniversary of the fall of Baghdad
Sadr followers urge departure of US troops
BAGHDAD - Tens of thousands of supporters of an anti-American cleric burned an effigy of former President George W. Bush yesterday and demanded that US troops leave Iraq in a rally marking the sixth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to US forces.
Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Shi'ite militia fought US troops intermittently until a cease-fire last May, had called on Iraqis to turn out for the protest at Firdous Square - where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled on April 9, 2003.
Protesters set fire to American flags and to Bush's effigy as it hung from the pillar where Hussein's statue once stood.
Nevertheless, the tone of the speeches seemed less hostile toward America than those at rallies during the Bush presidency, when Sadrist speakers would not refer to the US leader as president.
"We demand that President Obama stand with the Iraqi people by ending the occupation to fulfill his promises he made to the world," al-Sadr aide Assad al-Nassiri told the crowd.
Salah al-Obeidi, spokesman for the movement, said the slight change in tone - including the reference to Barack Obama as president - represented an overture to the new administration. Obama ran for the presidency as a staunch critic of the 2003 invasion.
"We see some change in Obama's language," Obeidi told The Associated Press. "It seems to us that Obama does not want to use Iraq as a base to fight Al Qaeda."
Obama has pledged to remove all combat troops by September 2010 and the rest of the US force by the end of 2011.
During a brief stop in Iraq on Tuesday, Obama told American troops at a base on the edge of Baghdad that Iraqis "need to take responsibility for their own country."
At the rally, Nassiri read a statement from Sadr, who lives in Iran, describing the US military presence as a "crime against all Iraqis." Sadr asked God to grant Iraqis a sovereign country "free from wicked occupation."
Protesters waved Iraqi banners and carried pictures of Sadr, chanting: "No, no occupation" and "Long live al-Sadr!"