Prospect of long-term U.S. occupation spurs protest


Thousands of Iraqis protested Friday against any long-term security agreement between the Iraqi government and the U.S. that would keep American forces in the country for years.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in various cities at times angrily voiced their opposition to negotiations that call for U.S. troops or military bases to remain in Iraq.

Waving Iraqi flags, some protesters in Sadr City shouted: "No, no, no to the occupation." A small group burned a likeness of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in effigy.

Al-Maliki and President Bush signed a joint declaration late last year that set principles for the status of forces agreement to be negotiated, which aims to cover military, trade and cultural relations. They planned to finalize a new security agreement by July 31.

Al-Sadr, whose movement battled U.S. and Iraqi forces this spring in Sadr City and the port of Basra before agreeing to separate truces in Baghdad and the southern port, came out strongly this week against any agreement legitimizing the presence of U.S. forces after 2008.

Al-Sadr warned in a statement that his movement would hold weekly protests until the Iraqi government renounces plans for a security agreement with the U.S.

Members of al-Maliki's pro-American government also have started to advocate imposing major restrictions on U.S. forces after the existing United Nations mandate authorizing their presence expires on December 31.

While Iraq has said it will submit the agreement to its Parliament, the White House has contended that the agreement is administrative and does not require a vote in Congress.

The negotiations are an emotional topic in Iraq, which was granted full sovereignty from the British in 1932 under a treaty that allowed Britain to keep military bases in Iraq and to intervene later in Iraqi affairs.

Iraq's government, dominated by exiled Shiite parties who returned to the country after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, are sensitive to al-Sadr's charges that they are collaborating with an occupying force.

The leaders of the main Parliament blocs made clear their displeasure this week with American negotiating positions during a meeting of Iraq's political council for national security. Officials from al-Maliki's Dawa party have gone further in voicing their discontent.

"I don't think with the conditions provided in that agreement that it would get approved. Such conditions can't be tolerated by Iraq," said Education Minister Khudair Khuzai from Dawa. "The whole agreement needs to be reconsidered."

Hassan Suneid, a Dawa Parliament member, who is considered to be close to the prime minister, lashed out over American requests to conduct military operations without Iraqi approval.

"They are calling for unlimited jurisdiction in countering terror with mere American will. They want the air and land to be opened without any restrictions. They want immunity for those working with the army," Suneid said. "This is not only an attempt to control, but rather an agreement with such characteristics worse than the occupation."

Abdul Aziz Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, also confirmed the Shiite elite's unhappiness with American positions. "There is a national consensus on rejecting many issues mentioned by the American side ... because it's compromising the Iraqi national sovereignty," the Shiite leader said in a statement on his party's Web site.

Talk of the agreement was also met with hostility in some Sunni parts of Iraq. "The occupation is trying to get a long-term agreement and that will be a colonial guardianship," said cleric Ahmed Zain in Fallujah.

A U.S. State Department official not authorized to speak publicly about the issue confirmed there were some differences of opinion with Iraqis, but he believed an agreement would ultimately be reached.

"Neither side will get everything they want," he said.

Times staff writer Said Rifai contributed to this report.

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