Iraqis rally against proposal, want U.S. troops gone

Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied Saturday in the streets of Baghdad against a proposed American-Iraqi deal that would allow U.S. troops to stay in the country for three more years.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a widely influential Shiite cleric who called for the demonstration, issued a statement demanding that the Iraqi Parliament reject the deal.

“These are the Iraqi people in front of you, rejecting this agreement,” al-Sadr's statement said. “The treaty is in your hands, so the destiny and reputation of Iraq also is in your hands. … If (the government) told you that this agreement will give you sovereignty, they are liars.”

After seven months of wearying back-and-forth, negotiators completed a draft deal last week. For it to take effect, however, the proposal must win approval from Iraq's Political Council for National Security, the prime minister's cabinet and Parliament.

U.S. officials hope to finalize the agreement before Dec. 31, when a U.N. mandate that has allowed American troops to operate in Iraq will expire. If a deal isn't in place by the end of the year, U.S. forces in Iraq could technically become illegal occupiers.

At Saturday's demonstration, which remained peaceful, both Shiite and Sunni Muslims condemned the draft agreement. Some chanted, “No, no to the occupier.” Others carried signs telling U.S. troops to “get out of my country.”

Al-Sadr has long criticized the American presence there, and his followers regularly demonstrate against the U.S. occupation. Saturday's rally was far larger than most.

“We want the occupier to leave without conditions,” said one Shiite demonstrator, Jabar Kareem. “All Iraqi people reject this treaty.”

American and Iraqi negotiators finished the draft after compromising on what has been the biggest sticking point between the two sides: legal jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel there.

If the draft is approved, Iraq could only prosecute American troops accused of committing major, premeditated crimes while they were off duty and outside U.S. bases. In other words, Americans could only be prosecuted under Iraqi law in very rare instances.

“We reject this deal in all its details,” said Nasar al-Rubayee, a Sadrist parliament member who attended the rally. “We want the occupier out and replaced by Iraqi security forces.”

Other lawmakers there have said they will vote in favor of the draft if it makes it to Parliament, but even those who support the proposal acknowledge that its ultimate approval is far from certain.

At a Saturday news conference in Baghdad, Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said the coming days will be a “crucial time” for the future of Iraqi-American relations.

“It's time now for a decision to be made on the agreement,” he said. “It will be difficult to reopen negotiations from here.”