BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Baghdad after Friday prayers to protest the U.S. presence in Iraq and demand an Islamic state to take the place of Saddam Hussein’s secular government.
The protests underscored a significant problem the United States faces here as the country’s power vacuum increasingly unnerves a people accustomed to iron rule.
In one of the first spontaneous public demonstrations in decades, marchers — Shiite and Sunni Muslims alike — waved banners and chanted slogans including, ‘‘No to Bush, No to Saddam, Yes to Islam’’ and ‘‘Leave our country, we want peace.’’
Just hours later, Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of an exile group who has strong ties to the Bush administration, held his first news conference in the capital and said he expects an Iraqi interim administration to take over most government functions from the U.S. military in ‘‘a matter of weeks rather than months."
But Chalabi, who left the country as a youth and is at best a controversial figure among Iraqis, also signaled that the United States may have a presence in Iraq for a long time, pointing to three time-consuming tasks facing the U.S. military here: Eradicating any weapons of mass destruction, dismantling the ousted regime’s ‘‘apparatus of terror’’ and disarming the previous regime’s army.
In Afghanistan, which had no weapons of mass destruction, the United States still has its troops on the ground nearly 18 months after the war’s end.
The issue of governance and bringing the shattered country under control loomed large Friday as U.S. forces faced continuing skirmishes north of Baghdad, a video surfaced purporting to show Saddam surrounded by an adoring crowd on the day the allies entered Baghdad, and U.S. Central Command officials in Qatar announced the detention of another regime insider.
Special operations forces took custody of Samir abd al Aziz al Najim near the northern city of Mosul after he was handed over by Iraqi Kurds. Najim, the four of clubs in the U.S. military’s deck of mostwanted Iraqis, was a Baath Party official, a regional command chairman for the Baghdad district. He is believed ‘‘to have firsthand knowledge of the Baath Party central structure,’’ said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks at a news conference in Doha, Qatar’s capital.
There were continuing skirmishes and the 4 th Infantry Division encountered paramilitary forces as they continued their move north of Baghdad between the towns of Taji and Samarra. The coalition captured more than 30 enemy combatants, Brooks said.
But it was Friday’s demonstrations that most shed light on the obstacles that the United States and its allies will face in winning over the Iraqi people.
Some of the banners and chants signaled the unity of feeling among the country’s Muslim faiths about the U.S. presence. Outside one mosque, protesters shouted, ‘‘This homeland is for the Shiia and the Sunni,’’ and ‘‘No Shiites. No Sunnis. Yes yes to united Islam.’’ Under Saddam’s regime, the country’s minority Sunnis repressed the majority Shiite Muslims.
More than a week after the United States military entered Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, there is no electricity, no phone service and only a handful of hospitals have their doors open.
While some police returned to work today, crime in the city is largely uncontrolled. Looters set fire to more public buildings Friday, including the information ministry, sending enormous, black plumes of smoke high into the sky over the city.
Adding to the unease is the complete vacuum of power in a country that 10 days earlier was ruled by a dictator. Many Iraqis hated Saddam, but they knew what to expect. Now with most offices and businesses closed and no new government in sight, they are at loose ends.
Although retired U.S. Gen. Jay Garner, the designated civil administrator for Iraq, plans to arrive by the middle of next week with a staff of 500, for the moment there is no clear U.S. or Iraqi spokesman here.
Chalabi, the only pro-U.S. spokesman to appear on the scene, is distrusted by many Iraqis, who believe that the United States has already anointed him as the new president although he has repeatedly said that he will not take part in the interim administration of the country or run for president.