- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2008

BAGHDAD | Anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr urged Iraq‘s parliament to reject a pact that would extend U.S. presence in Iraq for three years as tens of thousands of his followers marched through Baghdad’s streets Saturday to reinforce that demand.

The large turnout points to trouble ahead for the U.S.-Iraqi security deal as Sunni and Shi’ite lawmakers weigh the political risks associated with the far-reaching agreement.

Waving Iraqi flags and green Shi’ite banners, protesters chanted slogans condemning the pact. The demonstration in the mostly Shi’ite eastern part of Baghdad was staged under tight security, with army soldiers and police manning checkpoints along the route.

“I am with every Sunni, Shi’ite or Christian who is opposed to the agreement … and I reject, condemn and renounce the presence of occupying forces and bases on our beloved land,” Sheik al-Sadr said in a message read to the crowd on his behalf by a senior aide.

The pact, reached after months of bitter negotiations, governs the presence in Iraq of U.S. troops after their U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31. As copies of the draft became available last week, it sparked an intensely public debate among top politicians.

A copy of the draft accord obtained by the Associated Press specifies U.S. troops must leave Iraqi cities by the end of June and be gone by 2012. It gives Iraq limited authority over off-duty, off-base U.S. soldiers who commit crimes. U.S. congressional approval is not required for the pact to take effect, but the Bush administration is trying to build maximum political support anyway.

But in Iraq, the pact must be ratified by the 275-seat parliament - riven by the narrow partisan interests, sectarian and ethnic divisions that have defined Iraqi politics since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Next year’s provincial and national elections further complicate the pact’s approval.

Positions taken on the security pact could determine how political parties fare at the ballot box, with most voters anxious to see U.S. troops leave and Iraq become a truly sovereign nation again.

“It is not going to be easy to have parliament adopt the agreement,” said senior Kurdish politician and lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, warning approval will likely be a drawn out process.

That has left everyone hedging his position on the agreement - except for Sheik al-Sadr, who lives in Iran but controls 30 seats in parliament.

“I am confident that you brothers in parliament will champion the will of the people over that of the occupier … Do not betray the people,” Sheik al-Sadr said in his message, as the crowd chanted “Occupier, get out,” and “No, no to America. No, no to the agreement.”

The turnout was expected since Sheik al-Sadr’s ability to bring out supporters was never in doubt, but it crushed any hope the Sadrist bloc would support the agreement or remain neutral.

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