Up to a million Iraqis took to the streets of Najaf on Monday to demand an end to the US occupation of their country on the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.
Demonstrators came in convoys of cars and buses draped with Iraqi flags. They travelled from across the country, including from Latifiyah and Mahmudiya, areas that have witnessed sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Meanwhile thousands of Iraqi flags flew from houses and shops in the capital in defiance of a 24 hour curfew imposed by US troops.
The Najaf march was called by rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr whose Mehdi Army has launched two insurrections against the occupation since 2003.
On the eve of the demonstration his followers battled US troops and their Iraqi allies for control of Diwaniya, a key Shia town 80 miles south of Baghdad.
Demonstrators in Najaf burned and trampled on US and British flags to chants of, “Yes to Iraq, yes to sovereignty, no to occupation.”
A statement from Sadr, read out to the crowds, said, “So far 48 months of anxiety, oppression and occupational tyranny have passed, four years which have only brought us more death, destruction and humiliation.
“Every day tens are martyred, tens are crippled and every day we see and hear US interference in every aspect of our lives, which means that we are not sovereign, not independent and therefore not free.
“This is what Iraq has harvested from the US invasion.”
Sadr is said to have taken refuge in Iran after George Bush launched his “surge” of 30,000 extra troops.
The US military describe the cleric as the “greatest threat to stability in Iraq.” US troops have been setting up bases in the poor Shia slums in Baghdad in a bid to drive out his supporters.
The size of the demonstration shows that the rebel cleric still has a mass popular following despite claims by the US that his organisation is splintering and he has become weak.
Sadr has faced divisions among his followers, who he describes as a “popular army” and not a militia.
The Mehdi army grew in the Shia slums of Baghdad and cities across the south and reflects the competing pressures on Iraq’s Shia majority – cooperation with the occupation or resistance.
Some factions of the Mehdi Army have joined in the sectarian killing of Sunni Muslims – often in response to car bombings in Shia areas – while others have been attempting to hold together unity with the Sunnis.
On Sunday Sadr issued another call to his followers not to attack other Iraqis but to turn all their efforts to driving out the occupation.
“God has ordered you to be patient in front of your enemy, and unify your efforts against them – not against the sons of Iraq,” he said.
The struggle for unity among Iraq’s resistance organisations was symbolised by the presence of Sunni Muslim delegations on the march, with a Sunni cleric marching at the front of the demonstration.
On the eve of the protest Sheikh Harith al-Dari, the head of the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, blamed the occupation for being behind the “discord” in the country.
He said Iraq has become “a vast prison, a graveyard that is devouring hundreds of thousands”, and that the US wants “to silence any voice of opposition and to put an end to the Iraqi people’s resistance to the occupation”.
On Friday of last week one of the most influential national resistance organisations in the Sunni heartlands issued a statement criticising Sunni groups that were fomenting sectarian and ethnic conflict and tarnishing the name of the resistance movement.
Many Iraqis have began to wear golden pendants in the shape of Iraq as a statement of national unity. The demonstrators in Najaf waved Iraqi flags, rather than the yellow and black flags associated with the Shia branch of Islam.
The protest on Monday was the biggest in Iraq since the massive unity demonstrations in the early days of the occupation.
Iraqi soldiers in uniform joined the crowd. Sadr appealed to them not to “walk alongside the occupiers, because they are your arch enemy.
“My brothers in the Mehdi Army, and my brothers in the security services – enough fighting and rivalry, because that is only a success for our, and your, enemy.”
“Infighting between brothers is not right, nor is it right to follow the dirty American sedition, or to defend the occupier.”
Sadr warned that the “enemy wants to draw you into a war to end the Shia, or rather Islam” and he urged the army and police to remain independent of US forces.
Salah al-Obaydi, a senior official in Sadr’s organisation, described the rally as a “call for liberation.”
“We’re hoping that by next year’s anniversary, we will be an independent and liberated Iraq with full sovereignty.”