Tens of thousands of Iraqis crowded into the square Thursday where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled, along with his regime, six years ago. Waving posters of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr and demanding that President Obama fulfill his promise to withdraw US troops, their presence underscored the eagerness of many Iraqis to see the US leave – but also their apprehension about what comes next, especially after a week of bombings that have marred months of relative calm.
The demonstrators in Firdos Square were mostly young men, jubilant despite the pouring rain. Halfway up the decaying green concrete sculpture that replaced the towering image of Saddam Hussein, high school student Karar Abdul Hussein, himself symbolic of the new Iraq, clambered up to get a better view and wave an Iraqi flag.
"We were so happy when they brought down the statue, but now we want the occupation to end. The Americans are very tough against the Iraqis," he says after being persuaded to climb back down and talk.
Despite the recent bomb attacks, security has improved dramatically since Iraq pulled back from all-out civil war two years ago. For most people, a lack of jobs and essential services, including water and electricity, are now their main concerns. The drop in oil revenue has prompted major budget cuts by the Iraqi government, and long-overdue laws to share oil revenue and power have been stalled by political power struggles and a dead-locked Parliament.
At the age of 20, Mr. Abdul Hussein is working in a restaurant while finishing high school. His father, a member of Mr. Sadr's militant Mahdi Army, has been in detention since being arrested by US forces three years ago. The local Sadr office supports the family by paying them about $65 a month – more than the Iraqi government does for them.
"This is not democracy," says Nahab Nehme, a hospital worker, holding one end of a pro-Sadr banner. "When America came, they didn't do anything for Iraq – they moved Saddam out, but he was their servant, and the people who are in power now are their servants, too."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last year sent the Iraqi Army into Basra to fight Shiite militias, including the Mahdi Army, in what was seen as a turning point in both the Shiite prime minister's political forces and in security in the south of Iraq.
Sadr, whose forces rose up against US troops in 2004 in the biggest challenge they'd faced since the beginning of the war, waxes and wanes as a military leader, but remains a key political player. He is believed to be engaged in religious studies in Iran and is rarely seen in public these days. But an aide read a statement from him on the sixth anniversary of the regime's toppling, describing the American presence here as a "crime against all Iraqis."
"We demand that President Obama stand with the Iraqi people by ending the occupation to fulfill his promises he made to the world," Ali al-Marwani told the crowd.
"God unite us, return our riches, free the prisoners from the prisons, return sovereignty to our country ... free our country from the occupier, and prevent the occupier from stealing our oil," read Sadr's message.
He ended by asking demonstrators to shake hands with each other and the Iraqi police who helped protect them. Sadr organization guards were in charge of security at the demonstration with Iraqi police ringing the outside and Iraqi soldiers nearby.
As the rain stopped and the demonstrators flooded into the streets, hundreds lined up to shake hands and kiss the police officers on both cheeks – the traditional Arab greeting.
"The media says the Sadr movement is the enemy of the Iraqi security forces – that we attack the police and the Army – but we are brothers," says Ahmed al-Musawi, a student at the Medical Institute.
Policeman Ali Falah Ali stood in the square six years ago – a high school student at the time – when US forces put a noose around the statue of Saddam. He says he believes the growing number of Iraqi security forces can now take care of their own country.
"God willing, with the number of troops here, either this year or by next year, day after day the situation will improve," he says.
Although the anniversary in recent years has been celebrated as a public holiday, authorities said Wednesday that government offices and schools would stay open. Teachers showed up, but few children came to classes. In the commercial area of Karrada, shops were open.
"Business is good – a lot of people are renovating," says Ghanam Ghazi, overseeing painters at a new men's clothing store. He says security has generally been good, but people are worried about a spate of bombings that have killed dozens of Iraqis in Baghdad.
He and his coworker, Ahmed Thamer, say they have little faith in Obama, and want proof that US forces are leaving. The US president visited Iraq Tuesday and told Iraqi leaders and US officials that it was time to phase out America's combat role.
Mr. Thamer says that his childhood friend, Ahmed Ismael, was shot dead by US forces in 2004 when his car got in the way of an armored convoy in Baghdad.
"They're not like the Iraqi troops," he says. "The Iraqi troops – we can talk to them, we can deal with them."