Friday, May 30, 2008; 6:45 PM
BAGHDAD, May 30 — Thousands of followers of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr protested Friday in Shiite enclaves across Iraq against plans for a long-term security pact that would allow for an extended U.S. military presence in the country.
Some of the protesters carried pictures of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dressed as former president Saddam Hussein. In one corner, a group burned an effigy of Maliki, then danced and stomped on it, as Iraqi government soldiers kept their distance.
The protests were the first since Iraqi troops entered Sadr City this month to assert control over one of Iraq’s unruliest zones. But Friday’s actions highlighted Sadr’s power and popularity among poor Shiites, even as the Shiite-led Iraqi government, backed by U.S. and British forces, have waged a concerted campaign in recent months to weaken his movement and undermine his leadership credentials.
Friday’s protests also underscored Sadr’s long-term strategy to fulfill his ambitions of leading Iraq someday. After his Mahdi Army militia engaged last month in fierce battles with U.S. and Iraqi forces, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths, Sadr negotiated a pact that allowed Iraqi troops into Sadr City but barred American soldiers. It was viewed as a victory for Maliki’s government and for U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.
But the arrangement has also allowed Sadr to boost his image and popularity, while preserving the strength of his militiamen ahead of all-important provincial elections scheduled for October. There are now fewer raids and airstrikes in Sadr City, home to more than 2 million people, and U.S. and Iraqi government efforts are starting to bring basic services to Sadr’s impoverished core constituency.
Many Iraqi army soldiers in the enclave are Shiites who sympathize with Sadr and his movement. “Most soldiers here are from southern parts of Iraq, and half of them are affiliated with the Sadr trend,” said Salah Sabieh, an Iraqi soldier who was watching the protests unfold. On the windshield of his tan military truck, topped by a soldier manning a machine gun, was a picture of Sadr.”He is the leader. We can’t remove his picture. We are all Shiites,” said Sabieh, standing in front of his truck. “Moqtada Sadr represents all Iraq.”
Sabieh said he supported Sadr’s call to oppose any form of long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
Sadr’s primary ambition has always been a U.S. troop withdrawal. In recent years, his fighters have fought pitched battles against U.S. forces, and his followers have staged numerous demonstrations. When Maliki refused to demand a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Sadr pulled his political bloc from the ruling coalition.
The proposed long-term security pact with the United States would provide a legal framework for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31, when their U.N. mandate expires. Sadr views the planned pact as a blow to Iraq’s sovereignty. His main Shiite rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, an influential Shiite political party that is part of Maliki’s ruling coalition, has also denounced the plans.
Sadr has called for any pact reached with the Americans to be put to a popular referendum so that his followers could “collect millions of signatures” rejecting it. He has vowed to hold protests across Iraq every week after Friday prayers until the pact is canceled.
On Friday, demonstrations also took place in the southern cities of Kut, Nasiriyah and Najaf. In the Kufa, 2,500 protesters marched to a mosque, chanting: “We would rather die than compromise. No, no, America.”
Many protesters carried pistols, which they placed on their prayer mats as they prayed. Photographers and television cameramen were given instructions not to zoom in on faces because the protesters included senior Mahdi Army figures who had fled the government crackdown in other provinces. Banners called for the Iraqi government to release Sadr followers from detention centers and to stop raiding their houses.
There were no major protests in the southern city of Basra, where Sadr’s followers fled or went underground following an Iraqi government offensive in late March. On a recent visit, many Sadr followers refused to meet with or receive phone calls from a reporter because they feared that Iraqi forces would arrest them.
In Basra, the Sadrists have accused the Iraqi forces of representing not the government but their Shiite rivals. The Sadr followers charge that government forces are trying to weaken the movement before the local elections. Iraqi army commanders in Basra have denied the allegations.