Iraqis Pour into Street to Protest U.S. Security "Agreement"

BAGHDAD -- Thousands of Iraqis, mainly Shiite followers of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, gathered in Baghdad Friday to protest a security accord that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq until 2011.

The crowds swarmed into central Baghdad's Firdoos Square, where a large statue of executed President Saddam Hussein was torn down by U.S. troops a few weeks after the March 2003 invasion.

The protestors hung an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush carrying a suitcase labelled "security agreement" from the abstract statue that now stands in the center of the square.

A sign pinned to the effigy reflected the mood of the protestors: "The security agreement is shameful and humiliating."

The agreement, which was approved by the Iraqi cabinet on Sunday after nearly a year of hard-nosed negotiations, would govern the status of some 150,000 U.S. at the end of the year.

It would require all foreign forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns by the end of June 2009 and to withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011.

It has drawn fire from most of Iraqis, who are against signing any agreement that would seek to legitimize the U.S. occupation.

"No, No, to the agreement!" the crowds chanted beneath a huge banner with a picture of bloody, cuffed hands reaching out from a map of Iraq and three keys labelled with American, Israeli, and British flags.

Other banners in English read "No for the security agreement that makes Iraq a prisoner and without sovereignty" and "Occupied forces must leave Iraq now."

"We are following the call of Moqtada al-Sadr to pray and demonstrate against the accord and against the occupation," said Nawfal Faraj, 36, a civil servant.

"This agreement is not clear. It allows the occupation forces to stay in Iraq."

Sheikh Talal al-Saadi, the imam of Baghdad's revered Kadhimiyah shrine and one of several clerics in the crowd, said he had heeded Sadr's call to demonstrate against the "humiliating" agreement.

"The agreement allows the occupiers to stay three years in Iraq, while (president-elect Barack) Obama wants to withdraw them within 16 months. We want the Iraqi government to be patient and to wait for Obama's order," he said.

Another imam, the Sadrist sheikh Abelhadi al-Mohammedawi, then led the thousands of protestors in Friday prayers before reading a statement from Sadr.

"If they don't leave the country I am going to be with you to make them leave in a way that suits you, as long as it doesn't go against the religion. And if they leave I will be with you to protect the Iraqi people," Sadr said in the statement.

The Sadrists had called on both Sunnis and Shiites to attend the demonstration and Sunni imam Quteiba al-Nadawi led the crowd in chants of "Yes, yes to unity … Yes, yes to Iraq … No to submission, No to this agreement!"

The pact has been loudly debated on the floor of the Iraqi parliament in recent days, where the 30-member Sadrist bloc has sought to derail it.

Most Iraqis are opposed to any kind of deal with Washington that would keep American forces in the country, and that would give U.S. forces immunity from being punished when they commit war crimes against Iraqis.

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