Sadr urges Iraqi MPs to reject US security pact
BAGHDAD (AFP) – Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged Iraqi lawmakers on Saturday to reject a planned US-Iraqi security deal as tens of thousands of his followers poured on to the streets of Baghdad in a massive anti-American protest.
"When the agreement is in your hands, the destiny of Iraq and its people is also in your hands," Sadr said in a statement, speaking to MPs, whose approval is necessary once the deal is signed by leaders of the two countries.
"Do not vote for the agreement. If they tell you the agreement ends the occupation ... no, the occupier will still remain. If you are told that it would give sovereignty to Iraq, it is a lie."
Sadr, who is reputed to be living in Iran, is a strong opponent of the US presence in Iraq, and has consistently opposed the deal since it was proposed last year.
US and Iraqi negotiators have reached agreement on a draft deal that would govern the status of American forces in Iraq after the present UN mandate ends in December. The pact must be approved by leaders of both countries as well as the Iraqi parliament .
Details have not been made public but officials have said agreement was reached on a timeline for withdrawing all US combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
A key point of contention in the months-long negotiations has been whether US troops would fall exclusively under US jurisdiction if accused of serious crimes in Iraq.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on Saturday it was "time to take decisions" regarding the security deal.
"It is difficult to reopen the text. The parliament either ratifies or rejects it," he said, adding that the deal does not allow Washington to have a permanent military presence in Iraq.
"There is no hidden agenda ... the next few days are very crucial for Iraqi leaders to decide," he said.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Sadr supporters spat anger at US occupation and the proposed deal as they marched through the dusty streets of Baghdad.
Effigies of US President George W. Bush -- with bandaged head and fractured right arm -- and of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were set ablaze along with American flags.
Sadrist MP Nasser Al-Saadi claimed that more than one million people took part in the demonstrations, which could not be independently confirmed.
The march began in the cleric's Sadr City bastion in east Baghdad and ended at nearby Mustansiriyah Square, where the effigies were torched.
"No, No, to America! No, No to the devil!" shouted crowds of men, women and children as they walked the three kilometre (two mile) route.
Carrying Iraqi flags and banners of the Sadr movement, the demonstrators demanded an end to the US occupation.
"Get out occupier! We demand an end to the occupation!" they shouted.
Karim Kadhim, a Shiite from the holy city of Najaf, said "we are marching to reject the occupation.
"Would America like to be occupied by any other country? Would America like its sons to be attacked? Why are they occupying our country?" he asked.
"They have been lying for the past five years. They told us they are coming to free us and go. But they are still lying."
Demonstrators also chanted slogans praising Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
"The Mahdi Army is still powerful and Sadr is still powerful," they chanted, referring to the cleric's 60,000-strong militia.
The protest was originally to be held on April 9 -- the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. It was postponed due to clashes between Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and US and Iraqi forces.
The cleric launched two bloody rebellions in 2004 from Najaf which left hundreds of his militiamen dead but established him as a hardline leader of the masses.