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NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of people waving Iraqi flags staged a peaceful rally in the southern city of Najaf on Monday to demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces, four years to the day after Baghdad fell to invading American troops.
The streets of the Iraqi capital itself were largely empty after authorities clamped a 24-hour ban on vehicles to prevent any insurgent attacks, especially car bombings.
U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Mark Fox said that four years ago U.S.-led forces had "liberated Iraq from Saddam's republic of fear". That had allowed Iraqis to exercise their democratic rights and stage protests such as the one in Najaf.
"While there have been substantial accomplishments, the first four years have also been disappointing, frustrating and increasingly dangerous in many parts of Iraq," he said.
The protesters in Najaf were responding to a call by powerful anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who blames the
March 2003 invasion for the country's woes and wants a timetable set for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
Waving red, white and black Iraqi flags, marchers choked the 7 km long road between Najaf and neighbouring Kufa and clogged streets leading to Sadrayn Square, the main rallying point. Many had come from Baghdad and Shi'ite towns and cities in the south.
Sadr has kept out of sight since U.S. and Iraqi forces began a crackdown on violence in Baghdad and was not at the rally. The U.S. military says he is in Iran, but his aides insist he is still in Iraq, possibly Najaf.
His ability to muster such a large gathering was a signal to the Iraqi government and Washington that, despite his absence from public view, he is still a force to be reckoned with.
Reuters journalists estimated the size of the crowd at tens of thousands, while organisers said the number was far greater. The U.S. military said aerial surveillance pictures showed that 15,000 took part.
The young cleric, popular among Iraq's Shi'ite poor, led two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004 but has since become a major political player. His movement holds a quarter of the seats in the ruling Shi'ite Alliance.
Washington accuses his Mehdi Army militia of fuelling sectarian violence and says it is now the biggest threat to peace in Iraq, a charge Sadr denies.
Speaking against the backdrop of an Iraqi flag, a senior Sadrist, cleric Abdelhadi al-Mohammadawi, called on U.S. forces to leave. His speech was interrupted by periodic chants of "Leave, leave occupier!" and "No, no, to the occupation".
"We demand the exit of the occupier and withdrawal of the last American soldier and we also reject the existence of any kind of military bases," he said.
U.S. President George W. Bush has insisted U.S. troops will not leave until Iraqis can take over security and has repeatedly refused to set a timetable for withdrawal.
Iraq has a new U.S.-trained army, but Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government is still heavily dependent on American firepower and logistical support to combat the Sunni insurgency. In November, the U.N. Security Council renewed the mandate of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq until the end of 2007.
"This protest is our demand for sovereignty because we will not stay quiet on the issue. The Iraqi government can handle everything and there is no need for the occupiers to remain and continue killing innocents," said Mohammed Hamza from Baghdad.
Four years ago to the day, the world watched as Iraqis, helped by U.S. soldiers, toppled Saddam's 20-foot (six-metre) statue in Baghdad's central Firdous Square. A crowd trampled over what was left of the statue and danced for joy.
Saddam had vowed to defeat the invasion but his forces offered little resistance as U.S. troops thrust deep into the heart of the Iraqi capital.
By then the war had cost 96 American dead, 30 British dead and unknown thousands of Iraqi military and civilian casualties.
Four years on, the tolls have soared to more than 3,270 U.S. soldiers killed, 140 British soldiers, 124 from other nations, and tens of thousands of Iraqis. Ten U.S. soldiers were killed at the weekend.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Mussab Al-Khairalla in Baghdad)
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