BAGHDAD — A day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that American troops could remain here for years, tens of thousands of protesters allied with Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical anti-American Shiite cleric, flooded the streets demanding an end to the American military presence.
The protests were scheduled before Gates’ comments — made on Friday during a visit to troops in northern Iraq — although his statements may have fueled some of the day’s fervor. The protesters were whipped up by comments drafted by al-Sadr, who is continuing his religious studies in Iran but who sent a message to the crowd threatening to reconstitute his militia, the Mahdi Army, if the American military did not leave this year.
“The first thing we will do is escalate the military resistance activity and reactivate the Mahdi Army in a new statement which will be published later,” al-Sadr’s representative, Salah al-Obaidi, told the crowd. “Second is to escalate the peaceful and public resistance through sit-ins.”
A demonstration against the American invasion is held each April 9, the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad in 2003 and the date when Iraqis, with the help of American Marines, pulled down a statue of the dictator Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad.
Posters that proclaimed “Down with America” were distributed to the crowds, and some people burned American flags and chanted slogans like “Get out! Get out! America the great devil!”
Others spoke of their “religious duty” to “expel the occupier.”
But the event — an annual rite of the Shiite underclass loyal to al-Sadr — took on more political importance this year because it came amid the debate here and in Washington about whether American troops will leave on schedule by the end of the year or stay on in some capacity. The departure date was set by a security agreement that binds both countries.
“We want them to get out of the country,” said Sheik Ahmed al-Hasnawi, one of the event’s organizers. “It’s the last year for them.”
Ali Husain, a high school student, said, “We came from southern Iraq yesterday evening at the invitation of Muqtada al-Sadr. We will expel the occupier.”
Similar protests, although drawing much smaller numbers, took place in Sunni districts. On Friday after prayers, demonstrators in Azamiyah, a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad, chanted, “Leave, leave, occupier!” And a few hundred people demonstrated Saturday against the Americans in Ramadi, in Sunni-dominated Anbar province
Under the terms of the security agreement, the Iraqi government would have to ask the United States to stay on. But any such request would be politically complicated for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because of al-Sadr’s influence.
Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army twice fought pitched battles with American forces, in Sadr City, the vast Shiite slum in Baghdad in 2008, and in the holy city of Najaf in 2004. But he has since laid down his arms and joined the political process. In last year’s election, candidates loyal to him won nearly 40 seats in Parliament, and al-Maliki largely owes his second term as prime minister to al-Sadr’s support.
Even Parliament members from al-Sadr’s party support a return to armed revolt if their demands for the Americans to leave are not met.
“Military resistance is the motto of the Sadrist movement against the occupiers, which was adopted after 2003,” Rafi Abed al-Jabar, a Sadrist member of Parliament, said in an interview.