Thousands of followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for an end to the American occupation of Iraq on Friday, but the sixth anniversary of the invasion was ignored by the government.
"We reject occupation," the faithful chanted, fists raised, in Sadr City, an impoverished district of northeast Baghdad named after Sadr's father.
Slogans such as "Occupiers out ... non-believers out," echoed over the crossroads where Friday prayers are held to accommodate the large turnout.
An American flag was set ablaze and stamped out as the prayers ended.
Death tolls have tumbled since Iraq's deadliest days in late 2007 and in just three months time U.S. forces are to withdraw from major cities and towns in a prelude to a total pullout in 2011.
Neither the Iraqi authorities nor the U.S. military marked the March 20, 2003 invasion that toppled president Saddam Hussein and his totalitarian Baath party from power. But Sadr's devotees used Friday prayers to call for an end to America's presence in the country.
Sad day not a festival
Sheikh Haidar al-Jaberi, a member of Sadr's politburo, called for a major demonstration on April 9, the anniversary of the fall of Saddam's Sunni regime.
"March 20 should be a festival, but after what the Americans have done, it's a sad day," Jaberi said, referring to the official start of spring.
"They never kept their promises," added Qassem Zamel, who came to pray.
"The Americans came to liberate us from a dictator but they have destroyed the country," said Zamel, who is in his 60s.
He said his three sons were arrested in March 2003 and were still in jail, although he did not know why.
Shiites -- the majority in Iraq -- suffered repeated purges under Saddam's brutal 35-year reign and had at first welcomed the "Iraqi Freedom" invasion.
The campaign that ousted Saddam was supposed to bring democracy and a better life, but most Iraqis were caught in the maelstrom of violence that swept the country. Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda fought U.S. troops and unleashed sectarian warfare with Shiite militia such as Sadr's Mahdi army.
Iraqis still struggling
A report released on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the invasion underscored that Iraqis are still struggling amid the fear of being killed.
"Millions of civilians are still facing hardship every day," said International Committee of the Red Cross President Jakob Kellenberger.
"Indiscriminate attacks continue to leave dozens of people killed or injured on a daily basis despite improvements in the security situation in many parts of Iraq."
More than 17,430 Iraqis died in violence in 2007 but in a sign of progress this fell to 6,772 in 2008. The first two months of 2009 saw 449 die, the lowest official toll since the invasion.
"The humanitarian situation in many areas of the country remains serious despite the Iraqi authorities' considerable efforts to provide basic services such as water and health care," Kellenberger said.
Two major bomb blasts this month that left more than 60 people dead and scores more maimed served as grim reminders of the risks.
Smooth transition expected
Despite such precariousness, U.S. and Iraqi officials offer repeated assurances of a smooth transition as American troops pull out and fledgling Iraqi forces take control.
Fears of a return to high levels of sectarian strife or even all-out civil war are played down by both sides with the authorities working towards a semblance of something like normal life amid the ruins and countless concrete blast walls that litter Baghdad.
The tourism ministry announced Thursday that the first official Western tour group to enter Iraq since the invasion was visiting historic and religious sites.
"This visit is a positive sign for the return of touristic activity to Iraq," ministry spokesman Abdul Zahra al-Telagani said of the five Britons, two Americans and a Canadian on an organized two-week trip.
"It reflects the improvement in the security situation."
Iraq, under U.N. sanctions for much of the 1990s, has been off limits to all but the most adventurous of Western tourists for many years.