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Page last updated at 15:18 GMT, Thursday, 9 April 2009 16:18 UK

Shia crowds decry US role in Iraq

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The BBC's Jim Muir joins Iraqi protesters on the streets of Baghdad

Tens of thousands of supporters of Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr have rallied against the US presence in Iraq, six years after Saddam Hussein's fall.

Protesters in Baghdad's Firdos Square carried pictures of the cleric and chanted slogans denouncing what they called the occupation of Iraq.

Six years ago, US troops reached the square and helped Iraqis pull down a statue of their former leader there.

US combat troops are due to pull out from Iraq's cities by the end of June.

Under a recent agreement, they are expected to remain elsewhere in the country until the end of August 2010.

Moqtada Sadr has repeatedly called for a complete and immediate US withdrawal from Iraq.

Supporters of Moqtada Sadr protest in Baghdad (09.04.09)
The rally marked the sixth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to US forces

Protesters carrying Iraqi flags chanted slogans such as "No, no America - Yes, yes Iraq" as they thronged the streets and burned an effigy of former US President George W Bush.

"God, unite us, return our riches, free the prisoners from the prisons, return sovereignty to our country ... make our country free from the occupier, and prevent the occupier from stealing our oil," an aide to Mr Sadr read, as part of a message from the radical cleric.

Mr Sadr has not been seen in Iraq for several months and is believed to be in neighbouring Iran.

His militia - the Mehdi Army - was badly beaten in fighting with government forces both in Baghdad and in the southern city of Basra.

But the BBC's Jim Muir in Baghdad says the cleric is still showing that he has some political clout.

His political followers did quite well in January's provincial elections and he is again showing that he has the ability to call tens of thousands of people out into the streets, our correspondent says.

Withdrawal plan

The protest comes two days after Barack Obama said the time had come for Iraqis to "take responsibility for their country", during his first visit to the country after becoming US president.

Supporters of Moqtada Sadr burn effigy of former US President George W Bush in Baghdad (09.04.09)
The protesters burned an effigy of George W Bush

He confirmed his plans to withdraw all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

Mr Obama has said he wants US soldiers to leave Iraqi cities by the middle of summer this year and wants most of them to be out of the country altogether by the end of 2010.

A smaller number of military advisers and support staff would remain in the country until 2011.

Levels of violence have been generally declining in Iraq but this week has seen two bombings in the mainly Shia Kadhamiya area of Baghdad, after 34 people died in apparently co-ordinated attacks on Monday.

Attacks by insurgents claimed more than 200 lives in both February and March.

Some US military and Iraqi government officials have privately expressed concern that the violence may again rise as US troops are pulled out.



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