Saturday, April 09, 2005

Protests mark two-year anniversary of Baghdad’s fall

Army Times - News - More News

Protests mark two-year anniversary of Baghdad’s fall

By Mariam Fam
Associated Press
BAGHDAD, Iraq — Images of jubilant Iraqis toppling a 40-foot statue of Saddam Hussein and pelting it with garbage and shoes in Firdos Square defined the moment Baghdad fell to U.S. troops two years ago, a prelude to what many hoped would be democracy and freedom in a new Iraq.

Now radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is urging his supporters to mass at the square Saturday and mark the anniversary by directing anger at the U.S.-led coalition.

“The occupation forces started with this place, and now from this same place we want them to leave Iraq,” said Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Daraji, a spokesman for al-Sadr, who led uprisings against coalition forces last year.

“They have toppled Saddam and now we want them out. The situation in Iraq is going from bad to worse. The Iraqis saw no good during these two years of occupation.”

Sheik Hareth al-Dhari, the leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential group of hard-line Sunni Muslim clerics suspected of having ties to the Iraqi insurgency, also urged people to take to the streets Saturday.

“We call on all Iraqis to demonstrate tomorrow in all of Iraq’s cities against the occupation,” al-Dhari told worshippers during his Friday sermon.

Al-Daraji said al-Sadr’s supporters will demand that foreign troops leave or at least set a timetable for withdrawal. They will also call for putting Saddam on trial and freeing prisoners held in “occupation prisons,” he said.

A year ago, U.S. soldiers tore down al-Sadr posters in an otherwise almost empty Firdos Square because of a curfew imposed to prevent any gatherings on the anniversary.

This year, news of the planned protest brought a Friday attack by gunmen on al-Sadr supporters in Baghdad, killing one official and wounding two, al-Daraji said. He said al-Sadr’s office had asked Iraqi police and army to protect Saturday’s gathering.

The planned protests are a sharp contrast from two years ago, when Iraqis pulled down Saddam’s statue with the help of Marines and a small group from the Shiite majority, which was oppressed under Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime, triumphantly chanted “There is a burning in our hearts” and beat their chests with their fists.

Since then, Iraqis have lived moments of despair and others of triumph as the country witnessed a wave of crime, the bloody insurgency and the first free elections in a half-century.

While some in Baghdad plan to mark the second anniversary of the city’s fall with protests, others say the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections have made them optimistic better days may come.

“Baghdad is beautiful with its people,” said Safa Adnan, 40. “What’s important now is that we rebuild the Iraqi citizen. We want a new generation that is raised well, cultured and open to the rest of the world.”

The anniversary comes only days after legislators named an ethnic Kurd as Iraq’s interim president and a Shiite Arab as prime minister. Both men spent years fighting Saddam’s regime.

As the lawmakers met to shape Iraq’s democratic transformation, the streets and bridges that were blocked to guard the meeting served as a reminder of the perilous security situation.

Aziz Hammoud, a jewelry store owner, said the closed streets added about four extra hours to his commute. But, he added, as long as the legislative meetings give his country a new government that achieves security, he doesn’t mind the delay.

“I think the sacrifice is worth it,” he said. “We’re living in unusual circumstances now. God willing, next year things will be better.”

Zaid Baqer, 26, remembers thinking that things would get better as he watched the crowds haul down Saddam’s statue two years ago. And, to a certain extent, they did, he said.

Activities such as traveling abroad were nearly impossible for many during Saddam’s reign, Baqer said, and after the war he visited Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

“The real problem now is the security situation,” he said.

Like many in Baghdad, Baqer doesn’t stay out long after dark, in part because of an 11 p.m. curfew and also because many feel the streets are unsafe after sundown.

At Firdos Square, a green, abstract sculpture said to symbolize freedom sits where Saddam’s statue once stood, but concrete barriers topped with barbed wire guard the nearby Palestine and Sheraton hotels, home to foreigners. U.S. Humvees and Bradley armored vehicles sit inside the hotel compound.

At night, only stray dogs venture out, barking at the rattle of gunfire or the thud of a distant explosion. The only traffic is police cars passing by with lights flashing. At times, floodlights are turned on at the square, creating one of the few oases of light in a darkened city.