BAGHDAD - Tens of thousands of followers of a rebel Shiite cleric have marched in Baghdad to denounce the US presence in Iraq and demand a speedy trial of Saddam Hussein on the second anniversary of his overthrow.
Chanting "No, no to the occupiers", men loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr streamed from the poor Shi'ite district of Sadr City to Firdos Square in central Baghdad on Saturday where Saddam's statue was torn down two years ago, in a peaceful show of strength.
The square and side streets were quickly packed with crowds waving Iraqi flags and brandishing effigies of Saddam, Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush.
"No America! No Saddam! Yes to Islam!" many chanted. One group of demonstrators burned an American flag.
"We want a stable Iraq and this will only happen through independence," said a statement from Sadr's office read out at the rally. "There will be no security and stability unless the occupiers leave ... The occupiers must leave my country."
Iraqi security forces shut down central Baghdad ahead of the march and were keeping a tight watch. US forces, around 135,000 of whom remain in Iraq, were out of sight. Most protesters were searched for weapons before reaching the square.
"I came from Sadr City to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of the occupation," said Abbas, a young, bearded protester sitting on the grass in the square. "Every Iraqi has a right to demand his freedom. The Americans wanted time and we gave them time, now we want to rule ourselves."
Followers of Sadr from the southern Shi'ite cities of Basra, Amara and Nassiriya travelled hundreds of miles to join the protest, showing the appeal the young cleric, who has led two uprisings against US-led forces, can command.
By early evening, most protesters had dispersed. There were no reports of violence.
The protest was the largest since the January 30 election and the first since a new government began forming.
US forces last year pledged to arrest Sadr, a low-ranking cleric in his mid-30s, and destroy his Mehdi Army militia. But as part of a peace deal to end his uprising in August, he was not detained and he pledged to renounce violence.
Firdos Square has become a central rallying place for Iraqis since Saddam's overthrow two years ago. US forces last year shut down the square, sealing it off with razor wire, to prevent people massing on the first anniversary.
Saturday's protest taps into the growing frustration among large swathes of the Iraqi population against the US presence in the country. Armed insurgents continue to target US soldiers and Iraqi security forces they regard as collaborators.
A US soldier was killed in a roadside bomb blast north of Baghdad on Friday, raising to at least 1,543 the number of US troops who have lost their lives in Iraq.
On Saturday, the bodies of 15 Iraqi soldiers were found in the lawless area just south of Baghdad, Iraqi police said. Police said the soldiers were in a truck that was stopped by insurgents the previous day. All the men had been shot.
In the northern city of Mosul, a suicide car bomber killed two policeman and a child, and wounded several, police said.
In the town of Haditha in the volatile Sunni Arab province of Anbar, west of Baghdad, local police chief Major Ziad al-Joghaithi was assassinated by gunmen in two cars as he left a meeting with US troops, Iraqi police said.
GOVERNMENT IN WORKS
Even many Iraqis who would not take up arms against the Americans still want US and foreign troops, together numbering around 160,000, to leave. US commanders say they will withdraw only once Iraqi forces are strong enough.
Scandals such as the abuse of Iraqi detainees by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib and the deaths of Iraqi detainees in US custody have exacerbated tensions.
There is also anger that more than two years since the war, Saddam and his senior lieutenants have still not been tried. Trials are expected to begin later this year, although Saddam is unlikely to be one of the first to appear in court.
"We want to try Saddam and his men ourselves with no foreign interference," said Baghdad protester Murtatha al-Yaqubi.
The demonstration came as efforts continued to complete a the formation of a government 10 weeks since the election.
A president, two vice presidents and a prime minister have been named, but the prime minister, Islamist Shi'ite leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was still working on his cabinet and has said it could take up to two weeks before it is finalised.
Iraqi officials have cautioned that the longer it takes to form a government the more it will play into the hands of insurgents, who will view authorities as weak and indecisive.