- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

BAGHDAD | Thousands of followers of a radical Shi’ite cleric protested a proposed U.S.-Iraq security deal Friday, burning an effigy of President Bush in the same square where Iraqis beat a toppled Saddam Hussein statue five years ago.

Chanting and waving flags, Muqtada al-Sadr’s followers filled Firdous Square to protest the pact that would allow American troops to stay for three more years.

The demonstration followed two days of protests in parliament by al-Sadr loyalists who disrupted readings of the proposed agreement ahead of a debate and vote.

Despite the opposition at least three small parliamentary factions, the pact is expected to pass in the Shi’ite-led parliament when it comes up for a vote next week.

Mr. al-Sadr, who controls a group of 30 lawmakers in the 275-seat parliament, views the deal as a surrender to U.S. interests. But supporters say the pact will eventually lead to full sovereignty.

If Mr. al-Sadr’s group and other legislators opposed to the pact lose by a thin margin, they might attempt to turn their anti-American message into a defining issue in provincial elections on Jan. 31 and general elections late in 2009.

Mr. al-Sadr’s influence in Iraq, however, has dipped from the days when militiamen loyal to him battled U.S. forces and were seen as protectors of Shi’ites against Sunni militants, and his anti-American message earned him and his followers strong nationalist credentials.

Mr. al-Sadr, thought to be in Iran, was not at the protest, though his representative read a sermon he wrote that called the U.S. “the enemy of Islam.”

“The government must know that it is the people who help it in the good and the bad times. If it throws the occupier out, all the Iraqi people will stand by it,” the sermon read, using common rhetoric for the United States.

The protesters placed the Bush effigy on the same pedestal where U.S. Marines toppled the ousted dictator’s statue in one of the iconic images of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The effigy held a sign that described the pact as “shame and humiliation.”

After a mass prayer, demonstrators pelted the Bush effigy with plastic water bottles and sandals. One man hit it in the face with his sandal. The effigy fell head first into the crowd and protesters jumped on it before setting it ablaze.

The uproar this week suggests that the security pact could remain divisive as the country struggles for reconciliation after years of war.

For Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, its senior government partner, the margin of support is almost as important as the victory itself.

Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the deal would be acceptable only if approved by a wide margin in parliament. If the agreement passes the legislature, it will go to the president and his two deputies for ratification. Each one has veto power.

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