BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Thousands of Shiite Muslims staged the largest protest against America's presence in Iraq since the war's end with a noisy but peaceful rally. The well-organized march Monday was policed by men carrying AK-47s who did not confront nearby U.S. soldiers keeping watch.
Since Saddam Hussein's ouster by coalition troops last month, there has been a spate of smaller gatherings, some of them hundreds strong, demanding that occupying forces withdraw. But Monday's march was the biggest in terms of numbers, and had a distinctly political message.
Carrying portraits of ayatollahs and other religious leaders, the crowd, which swelled at one point to 10,000, chanted "No Shiites and no Sunnis -- just Islamic unity" and sang religious songs.
The march was the latest show by Shiites of their newfound power in postwar Iraq -- though they sought to show unity with Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority by starting the march at a Sunni mosque. A lone Sunni cleric took part in the rally, and it was unclear how many Sunnis were in the crowd.
"What we are calling for is an interim government that represents all segments of Iraqi society," said Ali Salman, an activist.
No U.S. intervention
Organizers sprayed participants with water to cool them off, and monitors formed human chains around the crowd to ensure that the marchers stayed in line and no violence occurred.
Small groups of U.S. infantrymen, including snipers deployed on nearby rooftops, watched the rally but did not intervene. Several dozen Shiite organizers armed with assault rifles patrolled the area. They, too, were left alone by the Americans.
The U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance said it didn't mind such demonstrations but expressed confidence that a majority of Iraqis welcome the new authorities.
The marchers went from the Sunni mosque in the capital's northern district of Azimiyah and crossed the Tigris River to Kadhamiya, a neighborhood that is home to one of the holiest Shiite shrines in Iraq.
Two dozen Shiite clerics in turbans and black robes led the march, standing in the back of a huge truck to address the predominantly male crowd.
"What we want is a united Iraq," said Mohammed al-Fatous, a 31-year-old Shiite cleric from al-Thawra, a Baghdad district that is home to 2 million Shiites. The procession was organized mainly by religious groups from al-Thawra.
"We want a nation that's run by honest people who are elected by the people of Iraq," said al-Fatous. "We don't want charlatans."
Many Iraqis are suspicious of exiled opposition politicians who returned following Saddam's fall and are elbowing for power. Some have called the returnees American stooges who are trying to implement a Western-style political system unsuitable for Iraq.
Some marchers carried portraits of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, senior Iraqi Shiite clerics and Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's most revered saints. Many also carried portraits of Imam Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric killed in Najaf in 1999. His death is widely blamed on Saddam's agents.
Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's estimated 24 million people but were politically sidelined and persecuted under Saddam, a member of Iraq's Sunni minority whose 23-year rule was ended by U.S.-led coalition forces last month.
The Sunni-Shiite split in Islam dates back to a succession crisis after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.
Under Saddam, many top Shiite clerics and activists were murdered, jailed or forced into exile. Since his fall, Iraq's Shiite leaders are eager to project an image of Muslim unity. They have played down differences between their sect and the country's mainstream Sunni group, which encompasses the majority of Islam's estimated 1.2 billion followers.
Shiites have swiftly moved to fill the power vacuum Saddam left behind, taking charge of Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and cities across the country where members of the sect are the majority. Also, for the first time in years, Shiites have resumed the public practice of some of their rituals, including flying black flags atop their homes.