The debate over a deal that would chart the future of U.S. troops in Iraq has reignited the rhetoric coming from Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, who denounced the plan Friday for not setting a firm date for American withdrawal.
Sadr’s opposition to the draft of the agreement, which must be approved by Iraq’s parliament, is a reminder of his potential to create headaches for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
The draft would have U.S. troops leave Iraq by the end of 2011, if security conditions permit. It was to be circulated among Iraqi political leaders and presented to parliament when lawmakers reconvene Sept. 9 after their summer break.
Iraq’s government spokesman, Ali Dabbagh, reiterated Friday that any departure of U.S. troops was “subject to Iraqi national security” and that the dates were hypothetical. The final departure date “will be jointly set” by Iraq and the United States, he said, downplaying suggestions that the draft was the final deal.
At the weekly prayer service in Sadr’s Baghdad stronghold of Sadr City, chants of “No to the agreement!” rang out through loudspeakers positioned along the street. Worshipers responded with applause and repeated the chant as the service ended and people drifted away.
Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia have kept a low profile since fighting in the spring led the Iraqi military to move into militia strongholds. But though Sadr claims to have revamped his group into an exclusively cultural organization, his fiery anti-U.S. message can rev up supporters and could hurt Maliki’s standing if Iraqis see the prime minister as kowtowing to American wishes.
At prayer services across the country, Sadrist preachers said any deal struck with the Americans was a blow to Iraq’s sovereignty. In Sadr City, listeners agreed.
“Everyone is talking about how it will really serve the interests of the Americans, not the Iraqis,” said Mohammed Fadim, whose well-stocked grocery store overlooks the wide avenue where worshipers knelt side by side in prayer. “Everyone knows the U.S. administration. Once they occupy a country, if they want to make an agreement to stay, 80% of the terms will fulfill their interests.”
Fadim and several others said their main desire was to restore Iraq’s sovereignty, something they said could not happen as long as U.S. forces remained on the ground.
“We want to rebuild our army, police, society. We want to help our country,” said a man who gave his name as Sheik Jabbar. “They came to us as liberators, and now they are occupiers. This is ridiculous. It’s been five years.”
He and others complained that the fighting that engulfed Sadr City and other Shiite militia strongholds in March and April had killed mainly civilians and left their neighborhoods in ruins.
Sadr City’s streets are lined with destroyed buildings, their roofs and walls shattered by bullets, rockets and mortar rounds. Iraqi soldiers and military vehicles roam the streets.
The neighborhood of more than 2 million people has been largely peaceful since May, when Iraqi security forces replaced militiamen on the streets. Though people here welcome the relative security, none of them give U.S. forces credit for pushing the Iraqi security forces out onto the streets.
Instead, they say the U.S. presence sparked the fighting. For some, their anger is also directed at Maliki for cooperating with the Americans and for relying on U.S. forces to bolster him during the spring offensive.
“The government that came with this occupation does not represent us,” said a woman who gave her name as Um Mohammed, adding that her father was detained by U.S. forces for a year before being released without charge. “We don’t want any financial agreement, any political agreement, any security agreement with them. We don’t want anything to do with them.”
Earlier, officials from Sadr’s office said Iraqi soldiers had shot to death a Sadr security guard as he walked with other men to attend dawn prayers in Sadr City. There was no confirmation from Iraqi security forces.