deal to keep U.S. troops in Iraq until 2011. The protest was called for by Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and was largely attended by tens of thousands of his followers, members and supporters of Tayyar al-Sadri (Sadr Movement). Al-Sadr is arguably the most powerful Shi'i Arab leader in Iraq today, a man whose day-to-day influence exceedes that of senior religious scholars, such as Grand Ayatullah Sayyid 'Ali Sistani.
Shias Stage Protests against Iraq-U.S. Pact
By Martin Chulov
The Guardian (Great Britain) [November 22, 2008]
Iraqi Shia protesters yesterday defaced and burned an effigy of President George Bush in a show of contempt for a deal struck between the departing US administration and the Iraqi government which will keep US troops in Iraq for another three years.
The protest, organised by supporters of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, drew thousands of people to the central Baghdad square where a statue of the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was torn down and destroyed five years ago by US marines and bystanders.
The demonstration followed a week of tension in the national parliament, stemming from a cabinet decision to approve the deal, which for the first time commits US forces to a departure date in 2011 and gives the central government a more dominant role in Iraqi affairs in the interim. A spate of apparent insults during debates this week led to several bodyguards bringing weapons in to the parliamentary chamber for the first time.
Iraqi officials took a first step to exert their new authority yesterday by warning all 172 foreign security companies operating in the country that from early next year their employees will lose immunity from prosecution for crimes they commit under Iraqi law.
The loss of immunity was a key sticking point for the White House during almost a year of protracted talks and has led several large security groups to consider leaving the country.
Baghdad motorists have long resented being forced to defer to western security convoys, which rule the roost on the capital's choked roads. However a series of shooting incidents over the past four years in which civilians were killed has led some contractors to believe that the new laws will be tailored to target them directly.
A security crackdown across central Baghdad yesterday heightened traffic woes during the three-hour demonstration. US forces were nowhere to be seen, with security solely in the hands of Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqi army is responsible for almost all checkpoints in Baghdad, as well as 14 other provinces.
Supporters of al-Sadr, among them members of the outlawed Mahdi army, provided an extra security ring outside Firdous Square, frisking protesters and scanning the rally from the roofs of nearby buildings. No incidents were reported.
The anti-western cleric was not present, but his supporters read a message he had drafted. "No, no to the agreement of humiliation," the speaker chanted to demonstrators waving green Shia flags and thousands of national banners.
"This crowd shows that opposition to the agreement is not insignificant and parliament will be making a big mistake if it chooses to ignore it."
The statement continued: "The government must know it is the people who help it in the good and bad times. If it throws the occupier out, we will stand by it."
The Mahdi Army has been stood down, but al-Sadr has threatened to mobilise its units if the deal goes ahead.
The Sadrists' opposition to the pact is in defiance of the approval given by a broad Shia bloc, led by prime minister Nour al-Maliki. The US-backed leader's Dawa party and the allied Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council are counting on a decisive win when the deal is put to the 275-seat parliament this week, which they will try to parlay into a strong legislative mandate.
The Shia bloc appears to have the numbers for a robust win. A weak showing would damage its legitimacy in any future deals and influence provincial and general elections due to be held next year.