Followers of the anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Monday demanded better living conditions in Iraq on the ninth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of their country.
Iraqis have struggled with high unemployment, corruption and an infrastructure degraded by years of sanctions, war and economic neglect. As the violence across the country has abated, economic development has become a key concern for many Iraqis.
Sheik Assad al-Nasiri said that Sadrists want the government to step up with better-paying jobs, public services and to fight corruption now that the U.S. troops have left Iraq.
Al-Nasiri credited the Sadrists with liberating Iraq from the troops he described as occupiers.
"We fought for Iraq and liberated it from the American occupation," al-Nasiri told thousands of al-Sadr's followers who turned out for a rally in the southern province of Basra, located about 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad.
"The government must meet our demands to live a better life," al-Nasiri added.
The Sadrists are partners in the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But al-Sadr and the prime minister have a tenuous relationship ever since Iraqi government forces routed al-Sadr's militia forces in Basra and eastern Baghdad in 2008. Al-Sadr later backed al-Maliki for a second term but the relationship has been marked by mutual suspicion.
Among the protesters was Hassan Saleh, 27. He graduated in 2007 from the state-run Technology Institute but can't find a job.
"I work as a construction worker because I can't find a government job," Saleh said. "We have suffered a lot in this rich country."
Many Iraqis look to the government, already one of the country's biggest employers, as a source of jobs.
Coalition forces led by the U.S. invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003. The U.S. pulled its troops from the country last December.
Meanwhile, Iraqi authorities released the Saddam Hussein-era trade minister who was found innocent of charges against him after nine years in prison.
Former trade minister, Mohammed Mahdi Saleh was arrested by the U.S. forces in 2003. Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said Monday that Saleh was released the day before.
Judge Raid Juhi of the special Iraqi court that tried Saddam's henchmen said Saleh was accused of squandering public money and having a role in the 1992 execution of 42 merchants found guilty of profiteering.
Juhi said he was found innocent last year but authorities waited for any other complaints before releasing him.
Saddam was executed in December 2006.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.