BAGHDAD // The anti-US Sadrist movement showed its strength in Baghdad yesterday, staging a massive rally to demand that American troops leave Iraq at the end of the year as scheduled.
As many as 70,000 followers of cleric Muqtada al Sadr joined in the peaceful march, according to independent estimates, although Sadrist sources claimed the real figure was closer to 100,000.
The procession, through Shiite neighbourhoods of the Iraqi capital, was headed by fighters from the Mahdi Army, the group's armed wing. Although none carried weapons, they paraded in an openly military fashion, marching in tight, disciplined blocks.
Well organised and drilled, their appearance was a far cry from the movement's early days in 2003, when critics dismissed them as a violent, poorly disciplined rabble, intent on fighting US-led forces, sectarian bloodshed and crime.
Now, those critics are comparing the Sadrists with Hizbollah, the Shiite militant movement in Lebanon which the Sadr bloc openly applauds. Like Hizbollah, the Sadrists, receive support from Tehran.
Renowned for its slick organisation and tight discipline, Hizbollah has grown to be what some experts describe as a "state within a state", operating its own social infrastructure and operating a powerful military independent of Lebanon's armed forces.
Iraqi opponents to the Sadrists believe Mr Sadr intends to take his movement along a similar path. Yesterday's rally only added to those fears.
Izzat al Shabander, a parliamentarian with the ruling National Alliance, referring to the march, said: "It's an open challenge to the Iraqi armed forces, the Iraqi government and Iraqi democracy," The National Alliance bloc governs an uneasy coalition with the Sadrists, among other political parties.
"What I saw at the parade brought Hizbollah immediately to mind," he said. "This is a serious challenge to the authorities. It was like there is no government."
Analysts said none of the Sadrists' rivals are capable of calling so many supporters to the streets at once. The scale of the rally shocked some politicians and commentators. "They have made a serious threat," said Alia al Nasais, an MP with Iraqiya, a nationalist bloc and one of the main factions in Iraqi politics. "It made the government look weak and the Sadrists look strong."
Busloads of Sadr loyalists from across the country - principally from the Shiite majority south - had been arriving in Baghdad since Wednesday.
Witnesses reported a festive atmosphere prior to yesterday's march. Residents of Sadr city, Baghdad's sprawling Shiite slum, provided food and lodging for many of their fellow Sadrists.
The parade had been planned for weeks, with Sadrists across Iraq setting up training camps where they instructed supporters in how to march in a military style. Among the slogans chanted during the march were "No, no, America!" and "No, no, Israel!"
Ahmad al Taie, editor of the daily newspaper Baghdad, said the size of the march was a testament to the failure of Iraq's politicians to provide an alternative to Mr Sadr's populist appeal.
"You've got thousands of young people, educated and uneducated alike, living without jobs and without hope," he said. "The Sadrists present themselves as the saviour of Iraq, and that message is getting through to people. Ordinary people have faith in the Sadrists that they do not have in the government."
The rally had been due to take place earlier in the week and, according to sources, was postponed when senior Sadrist officials learnt that hardliners had prepared to shout sectarian slogans aimed at Iraq's Sunni community. The Mahdi Army was heavily implicated in the country's sectarian civil war between 2005 and 2007, as it fought and exchanged guerrilla attacks with Sunni militants.
Ali al Tamimi, a Sadrist MP, stressed the rally had been peaceful and nationalist in sentiment. Mr Tamimi pointed out that the march passed without any clashes with the Iraqi army, which was heavily deployed on Baghdad streets.
"It shows the Mahdi Army is powerful now, and capable of organising this kind of event," he said. "But it was not just Sadrists, it represents all Iraqi people who are against the continued occupation of their lands by foreign troops."
The question of US forces staying on in Iraq beyond the end of the year, when the agreement between Baghdad and Washington expires, looms over Iraqi politics. Many politicians and officials, as well as a significant portion of the populace, want US troops to stay on in some fashion in support of the Iraqi forces.
The Sadrists, however, have said they will send their Mahdi Army back to war if Americans forces remain. Many Iraqis are eager for the US to depart.
A decision on the issue might be made as early as next week, according to a range of Iraqi lawmakers. Washington and Pentagon officials have said time is short if American soldiers are to be pulled out on schedule.