Thousands of supporters of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr protested Friday against any security agreement between the U.S. government and Iraq that would keep American forces in the country for years.
Protests were held in several cities, as Sadr’s followers angrily voiced their opposition to negotiations that call for U.S. troops or military bases to remain in Iraq.
Waving Iraqi flags, some protesters in Sadr City shouted: “No, no, no to the occupation!” A small group burned an effigy of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
The Iraqi leader signed a joint declaration with President Bush late last year that set principles for the negotiations on the status of forces agreement, which aims to cover military, trade and cultural relations. They planned to finalize a new security agreement by July 31.
Sadr, whose movement battled U.S. and Iraqi forces in spring in Sadr City and the southern port city of Basra before agreeing to truces in both places, came out strongly this week against any agreement legitimizing the presence of U.S. forces after 2008.
The cleric warned in a statement that his movement would hold protests every week until the Iraqi government renounced plans for the pact.
Members of Maliki’s U.S.-allied government also have started to speak out in favor of imposing major restrictions on U.S. forces after the United Nations mandate authorizing their presence expires Dec. 31.
Iraq has said it will submit the agreement to parliament for approval, whereas the White House has argued that the agreement is administrative and does not need to be voted on in Congress.
The negotiations are an emotional issue in Iraq, which won full sovereignty from British colonial rule in 1932 under a treaty that allowed Britain to keep military bases and which paved the way for it to later intervene in Iraqi affairs.
The Iraqi government, dominated by Shiite parties that returned from exile after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, is sensitive to Sadr’s charges that they are collaborating with an occupying force.
Leaders of the main parliamentary blocs made clear their displeasure with American negotiating positions during a meeting this week of Iraq’s political council for national security.
Officials with Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party have gone further in voicing their discontent.
“I don’t think with the conditions provided in that agreement that it would get approved. Such conditions can’t be tolerated by Iraq,” said Education Minister Khudair Khuzai of Dawa. “The whole agreement needs to be reconsidered.”
Khuzai objected to Americans wanting unlimited rights to arrest people.
Hassan Suneid, a Dawa lawmaker, considered close to the prime minister, lashed out at American requests to conduct military operations without Iraqi approval.
“They are calling for unlimited jurisdiction in countering terror with mere American will. They want the air and land to be opened without any restrictions. They want immunity for those working with the army,” Suneid said. “This is not only an attempt to control, but rather an agreement with such characteristics worse than the occupation.”
Abdelaziz Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, also confirmed the Shiite elite’s unhappiness with American demands.
“There is a national consensus on rejecting many issues mentioned by the American side . . . because it’s compromising the Iraqi national sovereignty,” the Shiite leader said in a statement on his party’s website.
Talk of the agreement was also met with hostility in some Sunni Arab parts of Iraq. “The occupation is trying to get a long-term agreement and that will be a colonial guardianship,” said cleric Ahmed Zain in Fallouja, in the western province of Anbar.
A State Department official not authorized to speak publicly about the issue confirmed that there were some differences of opinion with Iraqis but said he believed an agreement would ultimately be reached.
“Neither side will get everything they want,” he said.
Times staff writer Said Rifai contributed to this report.