Ned Parker & Usama Redha / Los Angeles Times – 2008-10-20 00:31:45
AGHDAD (October 19, 2008) — Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr warned Iraqi lawmakers that approving a US troop agreement would be tantamount to a betrayal of the Iraqi people, as his supporters rallied against the deal Saturday.
As many as 20,000 protesters shouted, “No, no, America,” in a visceral display of the deep apprehension among Iraqis over the security pact that would extend the US military presence in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires in December.
Iraqi officials, even those close to the Americans, have been reluctant to back a deal that effectively could label them a puppet of foreign powers. The government’s close relationship with the Americans has given clout to al-Sadr, who has refused to cooperate with US officials.
“They have portrayed this agreement in a manner as if it would end the presence of the occupation on our land, but the occupiers will remain with their bases, and anyone who tells you that this agreement will make us sovereign is a liar,” al-Sadr said in a statement that was read by his follower Sheikh Abdul Hadi Mohamedawi to a sea of people waving red, white and black Iraqi flags.
“I know for a fact, my brothers in Parliament, that you will favor the opinion of your people over the opinion of the occupier. Do not betray your people.”
The stage was populated by Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, who delivered speeches denouncing the US-Iraqi security pact in a square outside Mustansiriya University in eastern Baghdad.
Iraqi army checkpoints sealed off the square and the surrounding roads. The demonstrators had marched almost a mile from Sadr City, the slum home to more than 2.5 million people and the nexus of support for al-Sadr. One poster showed a US soldier arresting an Iraqi, with the caption, “Death to America.”
Protesters said they wanted the Iraqi government to hear their voices. “This agreement gives the Americans the right to do whatever they want. They will impose their terms on Iraq,” said Mohammed Qasem, a teacher in Sadr City. “If the occupier leaves, Iraq will be just and at peace.”
Speakers tapped into al-Sadr’s image as a populist who waged two uprisings against the US military in 2004. And they highlighted his distance from Iraq’s ruling clique in the fortresslike Green Zone enclave, home to both the Iraqi government and the Americans. “Repeat after me loudly, because we want the people in the Green Zone to hear it: Baghdad is free, free, free. America out, out, out,” one supporter urged the crowd.
But the failure to attract a larger crowd was testament to the pressure on the movement since al-Sadr declared a freeze on his Mahdi Army militia in the spring. Since then, Sadr City has been surrounded with concrete walls, and his supporters charge they have been targeted by Iraqi and US forces.
Nonetheless, leaders told the crowd that more than 4 million people were protesting around the country Saturday – a claim that elicited cheers from the crowd.
Progress on the security agreement, which the Americans had hoped to complete by the end of July, has stalled since the summer. A meeting of Iraq’s political blocs Friday to review the latest draft, which calls for the Americans to leave Iraq at the end of 2011 unless Iraq chooses otherwise, failed to push the agreement forward.
Haidar Abadi, a Shiite lawmaker from the Dawa party, described an atmosphere in which Iraqi officials are afraid that a pro-agreement stance might be used by their enemies. He noted that some lawmakers see no need to put the pact to a vote in Parliament before December.
Even some Iraqi soldiers shared al-Sadr’s sentiment that an agreement was bad for the Iraqis. “They should abandon the agreement because it will oppress the Iraqi people,” said a noncommissioned officer named Abu Karar, who sat in the shade of a tree as marchers walked by.
Also Saturday, masked gunmen attacked the home of a US-allied Sunni group in Balad north of Baghdad, killing five people and wounding a pregnant woman, the US military said. Balad is the home of a major US air base.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This article appeared on page A – 22 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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