Tens of thousands of protestors loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric, took to the streets of the holy city of Najaf on Monday in an extraordinarily disciplined rally to demand an end to the American military presence in Iraq, burning American flags and chanting "Death to America!"
Residents said the angry, boisterous demonstration was the largest in Najaf, the heart of Shiite religious power, since the American-led invasion in 2003. It took place on the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, and it was an obvious effort by al-Sadr to show the world the extent of his influence here in Iraq, even though he did not appear at the rally. Al-Sadr went underground after the American military began a new security push in Baghdad on Feb. 14, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Al-Sadr used the protest to try to reassert his image as a nationalist rebel who appeals to both anti-American Shiites and Sunni Arabs. He established that reputation in 2004, when he publicly supported Sunni insurgents in Fallujah who were battling U.S. Marines, and quickly gained popularity among Sunnis across Iraq and the region. But his nationalist credentials have been tarnished in the last year, as Sunni Arabs have accused al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, of torturing and killing Sunnis.
Iraqi policemen and soldiers lined the path taken by the protestors on Monday, and there were no reports of violence during the day. The U.S. military handed security oversight of the city and province of Najaf to the Iraqi government in December, and the calm atmosphere on Monday showed that the Iraqi security forces could maintain control, keeping suicide bombers away from an obvious target. In March, when millions of Shiite pilgrims flocked to the holy cities of the south, Iraqi security forces in provinces adjoining Najaf failed to stop bombers from killing scores of them.
Vehicles were not allowed near Monday's march, and in Baghdad there was a daylong ban on traffic to prevent outbreaks of violence. During the protest in Najaf, al-Sadr followers draped themselves in Iraqi flags and waved them to symbolize national unity, and a small number of conservative Sunni Arabs took part in the march.
"We have 30 people who came," said Ayad Abdul Wahab, an agriculture professor in Basra and an official in the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading fundamentalist Sunni Arab group.