Shiites Protest Planned U.S.-Iraq Pact

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008; 12:39 PM

BAGHDAD, Nov. 21 -- Thousands of followers of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated Friday against an agreement that would extend the U.S. military presence in Iraq, shouting "America out!" and burning an effigy of President Bush.

The rally was held in Firdaus Square, where U.S. soldiers toppled a statue of President Saddam Hussein in an iconic moment after the 2003 invasion. Friday's demonstration followed two days of boisterous protests by Sadr's loyalists in parliament, which is scheduled to vote next week on the agreement.

The Sadrists do not appear to have the strength to derail the bilateral accord, which would allow American troops to stay in Iraq for three more years. The group has only 30 seats in the 275-seat parliament. Friday's protest drew at least 10,000 people but was smaller than a massive demonstration held by Sadr loyalists in the same central Baghdad plaza in 2005.

Still, the Sadr group could make the government pay a stiff political price for passing the agreement. Many Iraqis resent the U.S. presence, and the issue could be a potent one in provincial elections scheduled in late January. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government bargained hard in the months of negotiations on the accord, pressing the Bush administration to agree to a pullout date of Dec. 31, 2011.

The Iraqi cabinet approved the accord this week, indicating that it has the support of most major parties in parliament. But the country's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has said the agreement must win "national consensus," raising the pressure on Maliki to get broad support in the vote expected on Monday.

The prime minister emerged from months of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering to defend the agreement in two televised appearances this week. His allies have also taken to the streets, with thousands of government employees and members of tribal groups holding demonstrations in favor of the agreement in provincial cities. Such rallies were held in five cities in heavily Shiite southern Iraq on Friday.

In a thinly veiled attack on the Sadr movement this week, Maliki said that some people "were demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces, but they have given that up and their slogans have swung behind negative interests."

At the rally on Friday, the Sadr supporters repeated their demands for an immediate pullout of American troops.

"I am with you in evicting the occupier any way you see fit," Sadr said in a message read by a cleric in a white turban.

The crowd, made up mostly of young men, shouted "God is greatest!" and "Yes, yes Moqtada!" Many carried red, white and black Iraqi flags.

Sadr is the son of one of Iraq's most revered clerics and has a passionate following among poor Shiites. He is believed to have spent the past few months in Iran. His Mahdi Army militia battled U.S. troops following the invasion, but over the past year its fighters have largely observed a unilateral cease-fire imposed by Sadr. Sadr has threatened to reactivate the militia if the accord passes.

Many of those at Friday's demonstration came from the impoverished Shiite district of Sadr City, which is home to some 2 million people and is Sadr's base of support in the capital. Some said their antipathy to the U.S. presence was compounded by personal loss.

One 53-year-old protester, who identified himself by the nickname Abu Salwan, blamed the U.S.-led invasion for a collapse in security. His 6-year-old daughter was fatally wounded in a bombing by "terrorists," said the man, in a white dishdasha robe. "The Americans said they were coming to Iraq to fight terrorism. But that's not true," he said.

Falah Hussein, 35, another Sadr City resident, said his mother had been killed by a stray bullet during clashes between the Mahdi Army and U.S. troops two years ago. "We want the occupiers to leave," declared the shoe-store employee.

The demonstration ended with protesters hurling empty water bottles at an effigy of Bush set in the place where the Hussein statue once stood. The Bush figure carried a cardboard briefcase bearing the slogan: "the pact of subservience and shame."

Demonstrators knocked over the figure and burned it, a cloud of smoke rising over the tightly packed crowd. Iraqi soldiers and police watched attentively from rooftops and watchtowers.

Although Sadr can still mobilize thousands of supporters, his movement has been weakened by arrests and attacks by the Iraqi security forces and U.S. military in recent months. In addition, the militia's reputation for brutality has alienated many Iraqis.

A Shiite cleric affiliated with Sistani, the country's leading Shiite, expressed concern Friday that some lawmakers had left the country days before the scheduled vote on the security pact, in order to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The cleric, Abdul Mahdi Kerbalae, accused such parliamentarians of "escaping and failing in their responsibilities" during his sermon at Friday prayers.

But an assistant to Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the parliament speaker, said all lawmakers planning to go to Mecca would travel Nov. 25, the day after the scheduled vote.

Special correspondents Qais Mizher in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and another special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company