Hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr mobilized tens of thousands of followers Saturday, using the anniversary of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime to issue a warning to American civilians as well as soldiers that it was time to go.
Far from Baghdad's Firdous Square, where US Marines helped Iraqis bring down Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003, the cleric’s supporters marched from Sadr City to Mustansiriya Square, near a major university in northeast Baghdad. Black smoke rose from the square from the burning American flags, and protesters set up a grisly display of Americans in business suits being burned in cages.
“We are time bombs,” the protesters chanted between a choreographed wave of young men dressed in the satin colors of Iraq's flag.
The protest was the first major Sadr demonstration since demonstrations began sweeping the Arab world this year. Sadr – who has reinvented himself as s serious political figure after his leadership of the paramilitary Mahdi Army, which fought US forces in 2004 – has called for restraint in protests against the Iraqi government, in which his party members now play a key role. Instead, the young cleric has used the possibility of massive protests as a veiled threat against the government.
Mr. Sadr is in Iran, where he is pursuing his religious education. But in a message read by senior Sadr party official Saleh al-Obeidi, Sadr urged his followers not to stand by if there were still a significant American presence here next year – civilian or military.
“What if the invading forces don’t leave our land? What if they stay in in another form?... If their companies, embassies have the invading American flags waving over them will you remain silent?” Sadr asked in the message.
The cleric went on to say that if that US presence remained it would mean two things: “escalating the work of the military resistance and re-activating the Mahdi Army.”
Asked whether that meant that the Sadrists were opposed to even a US diplomatic mission here if US forces were gone, several officials said the Sadr movement opposed any expansion of the US civilian presence here and considered the embassy the headquarters for the occupation.
US Ambassador James Jeffrey told reporters April 1 that the embassy, already the biggest in the world, planned to double in size next year to 18,000 personnel. That would include security, support staff, and diplomatic offices outside of Baghdad.
Sadr ended his message by calling on all his followers who could to register at the political party’s offices to engage in an open-ended protest until the Americans left.
Most Iraqis are deeply cynical about US intentions here.
“Iraq is a very rich country,” said Sabah al-Amiri, a government employee who came out to the protest. “Logically, I can’t believe the Americans will leave and ignore these interests easily.”
In the complex political climate here, the countdown for US forces to exit Iraq has placed the United States in a bind.
Under a painfully negotiated status of forces agreement, the remaining 47,000 US troops in Iraq are to be out of the country by the end of the year. Carrying out the withdrawal is becoming the main task of US troops here, overshadowing their official role of advising and assisting Iraqi forces.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a low-profile visit to Iraq this week, told Iraqi leaders that time was running out if they intended to ask for some US troops to stay next year.
Although Iraq lacks the capability to defend either its air space or land borders, asking for US forces to be stationed here past this year has become politically untenable. Iraqi officials suggest the US has abandoned the idea and will rely on the kind of bilateral agreements with limited scope it has for military cooperation with other countries.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki managed to cobble together a coalition government after last year’s disputed elections only after Moqtada Sadr, a longtime political enemy, agreed to join forces with Mr. Maliki.
A Sadr withdrawal from the coalition could bring down Maliki’s already fragile government.
Although the April 9 anniversary was declared a national holiday starting in 2004, in recent years discontent over the aftermath of the war has made it a controversial occasion. On Saturday, Maliki delivered a lengthy televised speech commemorating Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Sadr, Muqtada's father-in-law and founder of the Dawa party, who was executed on April 9, 1980. The prime minister, however, made no mention of the symbolic end of Saddam's regime on the same date in 2003.
Firdous Square, where the statue was toppled, was deserted on the anniversary. But a small part of the original statue of Saddam, Saddam’s shoe, is still visible. It reemerged after the abstract sculpture that replaced his statue was worn away.
Across the square at the Palestine Hotel, where a US tank round killed two journalists in 2003, scaffolding is going up as the renovated hotel prepares to reopen for an Arab League summit scheduled for May, marking Iraq’s re-emergence in the region.
Laith Hammoudi contributed reporting.