BAGHDAD – Anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr urged Iraq’s parliament to reject a pact that would extend U.S. presence in Iraq for three years as tens of thousands of his followers marched through Baghdad’s streets Saturday to reinforce that demand.
The large turnout points to trouble ahead for the U.S.-Iraqi security deal as Sunni and Shiite lawmakers weigh the political risks associated with the far-reaching agreement.
Waving Iraqi flags and green Shiite banners, protesters chanted slogans condemning the pact.
“I am with every Sunni, Shiite or Christian who is opposed to the agreement … and I reject, condemn and renounce the presence of occupying forces and bases on our beloved land,” al-Sadr said in a message read to the crowd by a senior aide.
The pact, reached after months of bitter negotiations, governs the presence in Iraq of U.S. troops after their U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31. As copies of the draft became available last week, it sparked an intense public debate among top politicians.
A copy of the draft accord obtained by the Associated Press specifies U.S. troops must leave Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009 and be gone by 2012. It gives Iraq limited authority over off-duty, off-base U.S. soldiers who commit crimes. U.S. congressional approval is not required for the pact to take effect.
In Iraq, the pact must be ratified by the 275-seat parliament – riven by the narrow partisan interests and sectarian and ethnic divisions that have defined Iraqi politics since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein. Next year’s provincial and national elections further complicate the pact’s approval.
Positions taken on the security pact could determine how political parties fare at the ballot box, with most voters eager to see U.S. troops leave and Iraq become a truly sovereign nation again.
That has left everyone hedging his position on the agreement – except for al-Sadr, who lives in Iran but controls 30 seats in parliament.
“I am confident that you brothers in parliament will champion the will of the people over that of the occupier … Do not betray the people,” al-Sadr said in his message.
The turnout was expected since al-Sadr’s ability to bring out supporters was never in doubt, but it crushed any hope the Sadrist bloc would support the agreement or remain neutral.