BAGHDAD - Up to three thousand Iraqi Sunni and Shiite Muslims staged a joint protest here Friday calling for an end to "American occupation" of their country, on the eve of the first anniversary of the US-led war.
They took to the streets in a peaceful march after weekly midday prayers, saying they were opposed to US military presence in Iraq as well as the deposed regime of former leader Saddam Hussein.
"No to Saddam. No to the Americans. Yes to Islam," the worshippers chanted before leaving the Kazimiya mosque, which is home to the mausoleum of Imam Mussa al-Kazem and is the holiest Shiite shrine in Baghdad.
During the service, imam Saeed Hazim al-Araji deplored the situation in Iraq and blamed the post-war situation on the US troops deployed in the country.
"Some Iraqis speak of liberation but most consider that it is an invasion and we are against this occupation," Araji said in his sermon.
"What have the Iraqis gained from this occupation," he asked, listing among the current woes the detention by US troops of Muslim clerics and "10,000 Iraqis" and roadblocks that cripple life in the country.
"We are all time-bombs at the service of the Hawza (the Shiite religious authority)," the imam told the worshippers, urging them to join ranks "with our Sunni brothers" and protest against US presence in Iraq peacefully.
The Americans, he said, "are violating Iraq".
The Shiite worshippers left the mosque and headed for the neighborhood of Azamiya across the Tigris River to link up with Sunni protesters gathered outside one of their mosques.
There they mingled, holding up placards in Arabic and English denouncing "American terrorism".
"Human rights have disappeared" said one sign. Another called for the "end to destruction" in Iraq and a third condemned the "indiscriminate" firing of US troops on suspects in the Iraqi capital.
"Before the war, Iraq had no links whatsoever to international terrorism," Sunni cleric Jawad al-Khalissi said.
"Occupation brought international terrorism to our land," he added, blaming the US presence in Iraq for nearly daily bombings and attacks that have rocked the war-battered country since major combat was declared over last May 1.
Khalissi also denounced the US military for detaining thousands of Iraqi and said: "The Americans refuse to allow journalists to visit thousands of Iraqi prisoners and won't allow them (detainees) to have access to lawyers".
The Shiites, who were the target of deadly attacks on March 2 in Kazimiya, blamed the US troops for the lack of security in the country.
The protesters also denounced an interim constitution signed on March 8 by the US-appointed Governing Council and called for speedy elections in Iraq.