by Deborah Haynes and Sarmad Ali - Baghdad
Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shia cleric, called on Iraqi politicians today to reject an accord to allow US troops to stay in the country beyond 2008, as tens of thousands of his followers protested against the pact in the streets of Baghdad.
In a display of anger at one point, members of the crowd set fire to effigies of George Bush and Condoleezza Rice as well as an American and an Israeli flag.
"Yes, yes Iraq! No, no to the occupation!" the protestors chanted as they marched, peacefully, from the Shia slum of Sadr City in east Baghdad to a public square a couple of miles away. Many waved the Iraqi flag or flags in the green of Shia Islam.
Hojatoleslam al-Sadr, who lives in Iran, conveyed his message to lawmakers through an aide, Sheikh Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi, who spoke at the rally.
"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," the Sheikh said.
The radical cleric, who commands the al-Mehdi Army militia and is rarely seen in public, also challenged a belief that Baghdad will move closer to ending the US presence in Iraq by signing a status of forces agreement with Washington.
"Whoever tells you that it gives us sovereignty is a liar. 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," his message said.
The comments come as the United States and Iraq move to finalise the status of forces accord.
The document must be signed by December 31 when a United Nations Security Council mandate authorising the presence of foreign troops in Iraq expires. Failure to do so will require Baghdad to ask for an extension of the UN mandate.
Britain must also sign an agreement to enable its small contingent in the south of Iraq to stay into 2009. London has said it will use the US-Iraq pact as a blueprint for its accord but time is fast running out for all sides.
Emotions against foreign forces in Iraq ran high among the protestors.
Many arrived in Sadr City last night, travelling by bus from towns and cities in the south, including one Sheikh who came from Nassiriyah.
"Our country is occupied. We call for the occupiers to be driven out yesterday and not tomorrow," said Sheikh Khalid Ahmed, dressed in a blue gown, a black robe and a white turban.
"The occupiers and the Government that cooperates with them have brought disgrace to the country and caused destruction and hatred among the people who used to live together as one," said the man, in his 40s.
Um Fatima, a woman taking part in the rally, accused US-led forces of stealing Iraq's riches.
"I refuse any status of forces agreement with those who slaughtered my people and allowed ethnic cleansing and sectarian killings," said the 38-year-old, a teacher in Sadr City.
Security was tight surrounding the demonstration, with roads leading to the area in the east of Baghdad sealed off by police and army.
Followers of Hojatoleslam al-Sadr described the event as a rescheduled "million man march" initially called in April when the al-Mehdi Army was fighting US and Iraqi forces in Basra, southern Iraq, and Baghdad.
But today's turnout, while in the tens of thousands, was well shy of 1 million, perhaps a reflection of the power shift that has taken place in the past six months, with Iraqi forces largely in control of the capital and down to the south.
© 2008 The Times Online