Iraqi protesters hold mass anti-US rally

The Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr calls on Iraq's parliament to reject a US-Iraqi security pact as his followers rallied against the deal.

Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr take part in a rally in Baghdad, Iraq, on Saturday, Oct. 18,2008, to protest a draft U.S.-Iraqi security agreement. The mass show of opposition comes as the United States and Iraqi leaders try to build support for the accord that would extend the presence of American forces in Iraq beyond the end of this year. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) *** Local Caption ***  BAG118_Iraq_Anti_US_Protest.jpg
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BAGHDAD // The Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr today called on Iraq's parliament to reject a US-Iraqi security pact as tens of thousands of his followers rallied in Baghdad against the deal. The mass public show of opposition came as US and Iraqi leaders face a Dec 31 deadline to agree on the deal to replace an expiring UN mandate authorising the US-led forces in Iraq. Mr Sadr's message was addressed to the crowd as well as Iraqi lawmakers and read by his aide Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al Mohammadawi before a huge audience of mostly young men waving Iraqi and green Shiite flags and chanting slogans including "no, no to the agreement" and "yes to Iraq." "The Iraqi government has abandoned its duty before God and its people and referred the agreement to you knowing that ratifying it will stigmatise Iraq and its government for years to come," he said. "I am with every Sunni, Shiite or Christian who is opposed to the agreement ... and I reject, condemn and renounce the presence of occupying forces and basis on our beloved land," his message added. Mr Sadr, who is living in Iran, also cast doubt on the Iraqi government's argument that the security pact is a step toward ending the US presence in Iraq. The deal would require US forces to leave by Dec 31 2011 unless Iraq asked some of them to stay. "If they tell you that the agreement ends the presence of the occupation, let me tell you that the occupier will retain its bases. And whoever tells you that it gives us sovereignty is a liar," Mr Sadr said. The demonstrators marched from the main Shiite district of Sadr City to the more central Mustansiriyah Square in eastern Baghdad. "No, No to America," shouted one man, wearing a white Islamic robe as he sat in a wheelchair and clutched a poster of the Iraqi flag. "We prefer death to giving concessions." Security was tight with Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints on side streets and snipers on rooftops. Iraqi Humvees controlled all the roads leading to the square. Giant Iraqi flags covered nearby buildings. One banner in English said: "We refuse the existence of the US in Iraq." Organisers insisted the turnout for the demonstration exceeded one million people, but reporters and photographers at the scene said the crowd was in the tens of thousands. Police had no estimates of their own. "This demonstration is our response to the agreement," said Nasser al Saadi, one of 30 Sadrist lawmakers. "It is also meant to demand a popular referendum on the agreement." The three-hour gathering ended without trouble except for a brief incident when several young demonstrators pelted army troops manning a checkpoint with rocks. There were no injuries and no arrests. The Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and the Bush administration have hammered out a draft agreement after months of bitter negotiations. But the Iraqi parliament must ratify the deal. Mr Maliki, a Shiite, could be politically isolated if he tries to win parliament's backing in the face of widespread opposition. Several Sunni and Shiite clerics, who wield considerable influence in shaping public opinion, also spoke out during Friday prayer services against the draft, complaining that the Iraqi public knows little about the terms. The draft specifies that US 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 US soldiers who commit crimes. * AP