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Muqtada al-Sadr urges rejection of US-Iraqi pact

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[October 18, 2008]  BAGHDAD (AP) -- Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Saturday called on Iraq's parliament to reject a U.S.-Iraqi security pact as tens of thousands of his followers rallied in Baghdad against the deal.

The mass public show of opposition came as U.S. and Iraqi leaders face a Dec. 31 deadline to reach agreement on the deal, which would replace an expiring U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

CivicAl-Sadr's message was addressed to the crowd as well as Iraqi lawmakers and read by his aide Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi before a huge crowd of mostly young men waving Iraqi and green Shiite flags and chanting slogans including "no, no to the agreement" and "yes to Iraq."

"The Iraqi government has abandoned its duty before God and its people and referred the agreement to you knowing that ratifying it will stigmatize Iraq and its government for years to come," he said.

"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 basis on our beloved land," the message added.

Al-Sadr, who is living in Iran, also cast doubt on the Iraqi government's argument that the security pact is a step toward ending the U.S. presence in Iraq. The deal would require U.S. forces to leave by Dec. 31, 2011 unless Iraq asked some of them to stay.

"If they tell you that the agreement ends the presence of the occupation, let me tell you that the occupier will retain its bases. And whoever tells you that it gives us sovereignty is a liar," al-Sadr said. "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."

The demonstrators marched from the main Shiite district of Sadr City to the more central Mustansiriyah Square in eastern Baghdad.


"No, No to America," shouted one man, wearing a white Islamic robe as he sat in a wheelchair and clutched a poster of the Iraqi flag. "We prefer death to giving concessions."

Security was tight with Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints on sidestreets and snipers on rooftops. Iraqi Humvees controlled all the roads leading to the square. Giant Iraqi flags covered nearby buildings.

One banner in English said: "We refuse the existence of the U.S. in Iraq."

Organizers insisted the turnout for the demonstrations exceeded 1 million, but Associated Press reporters and photographers at the scene said the crowd was in the tens of thousands. Police had no estimates of their own.

"This demonstration is our response to the agreement," said Nasser al-Saadi, one of 30 Sadrist lawmakers. "It is also meant to demand a popular referendum on the agreement."

The three-hour gathering ended without trouble except for a brief incident when several young demonstrators pelted army troops manning a checkpoint with rocks. There were no injuries and no arrests.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and the Bush administration have hammered out a draft agreement after months of bitter negotiations. But the Iraqi parliament must ratify the deal and Iraq's pre-eminent cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has said any accord must have national consensus.

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Al-Maliki, a Shiite, could be politically isolated if he tries to win parliament's backing in the face of widespread opposition.

Several Sunni and Shiite clerics, who wield considerable influence in shaping public opinion, also spoke out during Friday prayer services against the draft, complaining that the Iraqi public knows little about the terms.

A copy of the draft accord obtained by The Associated Press specifies that U.S. troops must leave Iraqi cities by the end of June 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, but the administration is trying to build maximum political support anyway.

"This agreement poses a serious danger to the Iraqi people," said Nassar al-Rubaie, another Sadrist lawmaker. "It will replace Iraq's occupation with foreign protection."

Al-Sadr's loyalists quit al-Maliki's government last year in protest against the prime minister's failure to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq. They also quit the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc in parliament.

They boycotted a meeting Friday night between al-Maliki and leaders of parliamentary blocs to discuss a draft of the agreement and plan to vote against it when it comes up for a vote in the 275-seat parliament.

Also on Saturday, Iraqi officials said the leader of a U.S.-allied Sunni group that turned against al-Qaida was killed in a drive-by shooting south of Baghdad.

Abdul-Hadi Obais al-Janabi was a local leader in the Sons of Iraq group, which the U.S. credits with helping improve security in former insurgent strongholds. Such U.S.-backed Sunni groups have recently come under the authority of the Iraqi government.

A police spokesman said al-Janabi was walking Saturday in the village of Jurf al-Sakhr when he was killed. Dr. Zuhair al Khafaji at al-Musayyib hospital in Hillah confirmed the death.

Meanwhile, Bahrain's foreign minister arrived in Iraq's capital Saturday for a one-day visit aimed at improving bilateral relations between the countries, the latest high-level visit by a senior Arab dignitary.

[Associated Press; By HAMZA HENDAWI]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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