By Marcella Bombardieri, Globe Staff, 4/16/03
Many demonstrators clasped hands and raised them in the air, while others carried signs that read "No one represents us in the conference."
"The United States and Saddam are two faces of one coin," said one of the march's organizers, a Shi'ite cleric named Sayed Ali al-Musawi. "One dictator will replace another."
Despite the disgruntled message of the demonstration, it was extremely peaceful and well-organized. The men marched in orderly rows in about a six different sections, with empty spaces in between them.
Anti-American sentiments were not the only views expressed in Nasiriyah yesterday. Many expressed gratitude that they no longer have to live under Saddam Hussein's tyranny, yet they remain angry over the devastation of the war.
"I have a message for Mr. Bush," said a teacher, Mohammad Bakouri, who was watching the demonstration but not participating. "Mr. Bush hasn't accomplished anything for us, yet he allows crazy people to assault us and steal from us. We won't support Mr. Bush unless he brings security to our town."
But nearly within the same breath, Bakouri said that the United States' help in setting up a new government for Iraq is most welcome.
"We look for guidance under the supervision of coalition countries," he said. "We need assistance. When you are sick you need a doctor, and when you are healthy you can go and do whatever you want."
Many of the demonstrators are followers of a Shi'ite group called Hawza, based at a religious school in the holy city of Najaf. They complained that no Shi'ites were invited to the meeting with retired General Jay Garner and other Americans to discuss Iraqi nation-building. Musawi, the cleric, said that four members of the communist party had been invited to the Nasiriyah meeting, but no Shi'ites, even though Shi'ites make up the majority of the population.
A Shi'ite cleric from Nasiriyah did attend the meeting with the Americans, although unlike the Hawza group, he advocates a purely secular state.
It appeared that many of the protesters did not know of the participation of the cleric, Sheik Ayad Jamal al-Din.
Many local people also expressed dismay at the heavy influence of exiles.
"This conference does not represent the Iraqi people because the people who are attending didn't live in Iraq and didn't know the suffering of Iraq," said a Mohammad Abid Rasand, a 26-year-old mechanical engineer.
Some Iraqis are withholding judgment until they have more information.
Speaking of exile leader Ahmad Chalabi, pharmacist Bresam Sheel said, "Up until now we don't know much about Mr. Chalabi. If he does a good job representing the Iraqi people we will carry him on our heads in celebration."
Sheel's house was seriously damaged in US airstrikes aimed at the Ba'ath Party headquarters across the street, and he subsequently lost all his possessions to looters. Nothing is left in the house except for a burned air conditioning unit and a 2002 wall calendar. He asked for reparations, but was not bitter.
"We need elections to find the most suitable people," Sheel said. "If one of you Americans is suitable to be the head of something, we will vote for him."