"Yes to Moqtada, yes to Iraq, yes to liberation," chanted tens of thousands of demonstrators as they poured into the revered Shiite cities of Kufa and Najaf Monday calling for US troops to leave Iraq.
The event – on the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall – was a clear message from Moqtada al-Sadr that the radical Shiite cleric remains a force to be reckoned with despite the fact he has been in hiding for months. His movement is under growing military pressure from US forces, including battles with Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the city of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad, that have killed at least 11 Iraqis since Friday.
"It proves that he's the only man capable of amassing such a huge demonstration and shows the weakness of the government and its allies," says Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor at the University of Baghdad.
"He's also trying to prove to all that he's the moving spirit among Shiites and that he has not changed his mind about the presence of US forces."
The demonstration, in which only Iraqi flags were allowed, was also an opportunity for Sadr to mend fences with moderate Sunnis given that his militia has been implicated in the wave of sectarian killings that have engulfed the country, according to Mr. Nadhmi.
Monday's marchers included some Kurds in traditional dress as well as Sunni clerics, many of whom were bused by Sadr's movement from the city of Basra in the south. "Let's put out the fire of discord and chop off the snake's head," chanted some in reference to Iraq's ongoing sectarian strife.
Sadr issued a statement Sunday calling for an end of fighting in Diwaniyah between members of his militia and US and Iraqi forces. "The forces of darkness led by the occupiers [US forces] are planting discord among the sons of the same nation.... My brothers in the Mahdi Army and the security forces, stop fighting because otherwise you are promoting the agenda of your common enemy," said the statement.
"To the Iraqi Army and police: do not follow the orders of the occupier because he is your enemy."
The majority of the Iraqi police and Army are Shiites, and some of the demonstrators were wearing Army uniforms.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of Sadr's supporters crammed into the backs of trucks or into minibuses draped with giant Iraqi flags to make the 100-mile journey south to Najaf. Passengers waved flags from honking vehicles. On arrival, people slept in parks, on sidewalks, and even inside Najaf's famed Valley of Peace cemetery, which was the scene of vicious fighting between Sadr's partisans and US forces in 2004. Huge vats were wheeled out into the streets to cook for the crowds.
The demonstration kicked off early on Monday morning amid tight security, including a ban on vehicle circulation inside Najaf and Kufa. In addition to the Iraqi police and soldiers, dozens of armed members of Sadr's movement fanned out among the crowds.
Protestors waving Iraqi flags and carrying banners emerged in groups from Kufa's Grand Mosque, walking about six miles to the 1920 Revolution Square in Najaf. The square, named after the Shiite uprising against British colonial rule, is also known as the Sadrain Square, in homage to Sadr's father and great uncle, both slain under Saddam Hussein's regime.
"No, No America. Death to America," read some of the banners.
"I want the occupation to leave right away. Now, no timetable. We want to be ruled by Iraqis only," said Farhan Turki, one of the protestors.
State-owned television carried segments of the demonstration live but characterized it as a celebration of the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Four years ago, US soldiers toppled a 20-foot-high statue of Hussein in Baghdad's Firdous Square. A crowd of Iraqis swarmed over the statue and danced on it.
Still, the government's response to Monday's demonstration was confused. Initially, it put out a statement on Sunday saying Monday was a regular business day. But that was followed by another statement imposing a ban on vehicles traveling in Baghdad.
Many Baghdadis, especially in Shiite strongholds, put Iraqi flags on their roof-tops or outside their shops. "We respect Sadr's call. Some of his supporters are more active. They will fight and go down to Najaf. Our support is more passive," said Ali Shaker, a pastry shop owner.
Iraqi flags fluttered from many of the capital's hospitals and government buildings. Policemen, who are renowned for their support for Sadr, draped flags on the hoods of their vehicles.
Col. Steven Boylan, a US military spokesman in Baghdad, praised the peaceful nature of the demonstrations: "Iraqis could not have done this four years ago." He told the Associated Press that "this is the right to assemble, the right to free speech.... This is progress."
The US military also issued a statement on Sunday calling the operation in Diwaniyah, dubbed Black Eagle, a "great success" so far. It said it detained 39 militiamen and killed an unspecified number. It also has uncovered "many large caches of weapons," including factories that make explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), devices that Washington accuses Tehran of supplying to Sadr's militia.
A doctor in Diwaniyah, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said by telephone that a 24-hour curfew has been imposed on the city since Friday and that the hospital has so far received 11 bodies, including seven civilians, and 35 injured people.
Diwaniyah has been the scene of off-and-on violence over the past year, and the doctor said the fighting has been mainly a power struggle between the Sadrists and members of the local government, many of whom are beholden to a rival Shiite faction headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.
"It is a turf battle between the [Shiite] parties," said Brig. Gen. Abdul Khaleq al-Badri, who was fired 20 days ago from his job as head of the Diwaniyah police force.
Mr. Hakim is a leading force in the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which also includes ministers loyal to Sadr.
A senior aide to Sadr says the battle in Diwaniyah as well as the targeting and arrest of Sadrists in Baghdad by US forces is all an effort to draw the Mahdi militia into a fight.
"They are trying to plunge us into a vortex of violence and sectarian fighting, but we are working hard to rise above it," says Sheikh Hassan al-Zargani, who is based in Beirut.
Sheikh Zargani says the movement is committed to "peaceful resistance against the occupation for now" whether by making its voice heard within the government or through street demonstrations.
He said he was not aware of any direct support to the Mahdi militia from Iran, or training from Lebanon's Hizbollah group, as charged by some US military officers.