| An Iraqi shouting anti-US slogans in Baghdad. (Reuters)
Baghdad, April 18 (Reuters): Muslims poured out of mosques and into the streets of Baghdad, calling for an Islamic state to be established, after the first Friday prayers since US forces took control of the Iraqi capital.
Carrying Qurans, prayer mats and banners, tens of thousands of people marched in the city’s biggest protest since US forces toppled Saddam Hussein more than a week ago — a protest unthinkable under the former President.
“Leave our country, we want peace,” read one banner aimed at the Americans who seized control nine days ago but failed to check looting, power blackouts and chaos in the aftermath.
“No Bush, No Saddam, Yes Yes to Islam,” read another.
The organisers called themselves the Iraqi National United Movement and said they represented both Iraq’s majority Shia Muslims and powerful Sunnis.
Shias, close to Iran’s leaders, were marginalised under Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government and some Iraqis have feared sectarian clashes could erupt.
“No Shi’ites, No Sunnis, Yes Yes for United Islam,” another banner read.
The marchers came from several mosques and converged in a central district, Aadhamiya, for the peaceful protest.
One of the biggest columns came from Abi Hanifah Nouman mosque. Its dome was bombed during the recent war.
The imam, Ahmed al-Kubaisi, said in his sermon that the US invaded Iraq to defend Israel, and also denied Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
“This is not the America we know, which respects international law, respects the right of people,” he said.
His followers poured out chanting anti-US slogans and waving banners that read “No to America. No to Secular State. Yes to Islamic State” and “We reject American hegemony”.
Saddam’s Baath Party, which has ruled for three decades, was secular.
Standing on and all around a tanker truck crawling down the road, the men, some in turbans and with long beards, chanted: “We are Sunni and Shi’ite brothers, we will not sell this nation.”
“We will give the American troops a few months to leave Iraq. If they do not, we will fight them with knives,” one demonstrator said.
One woman watching the crowds said it would not be easy to force out the US troops.
“What are these people talking about' They want to force the American troops to leave' It is too late to do so. The American troops dug in in Baghdad and now it is difficult to get them out,” said Um Huda, a housekeeper.
A statement issued by the movement urged Iraqis to oppose a “federal government that the US wants to set up in the coming few days”.
“Our movement wants every Iraqi to take part in rebuilding Iraq and set up a new modern state,” said the statement, signed by Kubaisi.
In Tehran, one influential conservative Shia cleric also called for the US-led forces to leave.
“Unite with each other and send America and Britain out of your country. It is a duty for the Iraqi nation,” Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani said in a sermon broadcast live on radio.
The US has said a former American general will lead an interim government in Iraq for an indefinite period but insists it will hand over control as soon as possible.
“People will have the right to demonstrate in a free Iraq,” said US Brigadier General Vincent Brooks. “There may be some that say, ‘Get the coalition out of here’.”
“We want the governance of Iraq to be handed over to, passed over to the Iraqi people as quickly as we can and we’ve made a commitment to not staying any longer than it takes to get those key actions completed,” he told a news briefing today.