BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Tens of thousands of followers of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have thronged Baghdad to mark the sixth anniversary of the city's fall to U.S. troops, and to demand they leave immediately.
"Down, down USA," the demonstrators chanted as a Ali al-Marwani, a Sadrist official, denounced the U.S. occupation of Iraq that began with the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Paradise (Firdus) Square.
The crowds of Sadr supporters stretched from the giant Sadr City slum in northeast Baghdad to the square around 5 kilometers away, where protesters burned an effigy featuring the face of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and also the face of Saddam Hussein.
Shi'ites were brutally persecuted under Hussein's rule.
"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," Sadr said in a message read by a Sadr movement aide Asaad al-Nassiri.
"God, make us the liberators of our land," the message said before exhorting the demonstrators to shake hands with each other and Iraqi police overseeing the march.
President Barack Oabama, who flew into Baghdad on an unannounced visit on April 7, has ordered all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving a residual force of 35,000-50,000 trainers, advisers and logistics personnel.
Under a bilateral security agreement signed with Bush, all U.S. troops must withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Sadr, scion of one of Iraq's great Shi'ite religious dynasties, is believed to be in Iran studying religious jurisprudence.
His Mehdi Army fighters fought pitched battles against U.S. forces during the bloody aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion but have retreated from the front lines after Sadr called on them to abandon armed combat and turn themselves into a social welfare organization.
The Sadr movement suffered a setback when Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered U.S.-backed Iraqi troops to crack down on its militia fighters in the southern oil hub of Al-Basrah and in Baghdad last year.