Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged Iraqi lawmakers on Saturday to reject a planned U.S.-Iraqi security deal as tens of thousands of his followers poured on to the streets of Baghdad in a massive anti-American protest.
"When the agreement is in your hands, the destiny of Iraq and its people is also in your hands," Sadr said in a statement, speaking to MPs, whose approval is necessary once the deal is signed by leaders of the two countries.
"Do not vote for the agreement. If they tell you the agreement ends the occupation ... no, the occupier will still remain. If you are told that it would give sovereignty to Iraq, it is a lie."
Sadr, who is reputed to be living in Iran, is a strong opponent of the US presence in Iraq, and has consistently opposed the deal since it was proposed last year.
U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have reached agreement on a draft deal that would govern the status of American forces in Iraq after the present U.N. mandate ends in December. The pact must be approved by leaders of both countries as well as the Iraqi parliament.
Details have not been made public but officials have said agreement was reached on a timeline for withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
It also describes certain conditions under which
It must be approved by
TIME TO DECIDE
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on Saturday it was "time to take decisions" regarding the security deal.
"It is difficult to reopen the text. The parliament either ratifies or rejects it," he said, adding that the deal does not allow Washington to have a permanent military presence in Iraq.
"There is no hidden agenda ... the next few days are very crucial for Iraqi leaders to decide," he said.
Marchers waved Iraqi flags and chanted "Yes, yes
Demonstrators set fire to a
"They have permission from the prime minister and the interior minister to hold a peaceful demonstration," the government's
"It is a part of democracy that people can protest freely, but we hope that they will understand the security measures that we have taken to protect them," he said. Male and female security screeners were in place to search bags on the route.
"I think there is not reason to be concerned," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters, adding that top military brass were happy with the protections in the pact.