Al-Sadr's followers protest security pact

But Iraqi unease may stretch beyond radical cleric's faction

October 19, 2008|By New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD -

Followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets yesterday in a demonstration against the proposed security agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, now being reviewed by Iraqi political leaders.

In a message to the assembled marchers, one of al-Sadr's senior clerics read a statement from him warning that "whoever tells you that this pact gives us sovereignty is lying," according to news services.

A leading Sadrist cleric at the rally, Hazim al-Arraji, said: "This is the voice of the Iraqi people from all over Iraq: We need the invaders to leave our country; no one wants them to stay. 'No invasion! Get out, invaders!' That will be our slogan."

Al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army militia conducted two major uprisings against the U.S. occupation, has consistently called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal and has opposed negotiations that cede any authority to the Americans.

But there were signs yesterday that the Iraqi unease with the security negotiations stretches beyond al-Sadr's faction. Quietly, some parliamentary leaders suggested that they, too, were not comfortable with the measure even though some of them were involved in the negotiations.

At a Friday night meeting with the leaders of the political blocs in parliament, there were no clear statements of support except from the Kurds, who strongly backed the pact.

"Most of the political leaders asked for time to review the draft and then present their suggestions," said Haider al-Abbadi, a senior member of Dawa, the party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

He said that al-Maliki had reviewed the positive and negative aspects of the draft with the group, and several who were there said they thought it would take several more days before there was a clear sense of whether the pact could win approval.

Even leaders from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of Iraq's main Shiite parties and a major player in negotiating the security agreement, appeared to be having second thoughts yesterday. Historically, the council has had close ties to Iran, and the Iranians are wary of the pact because it would maintain a large U.S. military presence near Iran's borders.

"We warn the Iraqi government not to submit to pressure to accept this agreement," said Latif al-Amidi, a council spokesman.

The agreement sets the end of 2011 as a date for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, based on the performance and increasing capacity of the Iraqi security forces, and it sets several specific dates for troop withdrawals from specific cities. But the draft also states that those "date goals" for city withdrawals could be changed by mutual agreement.

The agreement would also make private American security companies and other contractors subject to Iraqi justice in criminal cases, which was a major demand from Iraqi officials. But another central Iraqi point, to make U.S. military personnel subject to Iraqi law, did not go through - U.S. military personnel would still be guaranteed immunity except in cases of serious or premeditated felonies committed outside their official duties.

Iraqis frequently express mixed emotions, torn between a genuine loathing of being occupied by U.S. troops who have often seemed oblivious to Iraqis' feelings and a recognition of the country's vulnerabilities.

That difficulty was summed up by an Iraqi soldier on patrol at the demonstration yesterday. The soldier, Sgt. Ali Bandar Gomer al-Qaisi, 23, said with a shy smile, "If only they would leave before tomorrow." But he added, as he adjusted the Iraqi flag he had thrown around his shoulders to show his sympathy with the marchers: "They have to stay until 2012 according to the capability of the Iraqi army."

The demonstration remained peaceful, with the national police and army taking pains to avoid provoking the marchers. When a scuffle broke out between some demonstrators and Iraqi security forces, the forces retreated behind blast walls until everyone calmed down, witnesses said.

The event was planned in concert with the Iraqi government, which agreed to supply security to ensure that there were no attacks on the protesters, said Muhanned al-Gharrawi, a Sadr lieutenant.

"They will benefit from the demonstration," al-Gharrawi said, referring to the government. He explained further that if the Americans pressure the prime minister, "He will say: 'It is not up to me. The masses want this.' "

South of Baghdad, a prominent leader in the Sunni Awakening movement was killed yesterday when gunmen attacked his car as he drove home from the Karbala area. His death was one in a string of recent killings of Awakening leaders, Sunni Arabs who have worked with the Americans to fight Islamic extremists.

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