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Thousands Protest U.S. Security Deal in Baghdad

The Status of Forces Agreement was approved by the Iraqi Cabinet on Sunday after nearly a year of tough negotiations. The deal proposes to keep U.S. troops in Iraq until the end of the 2011 and creates the framework for the management of the U.S. military mission once a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.

The agreement must now win approval in the Iraqi parliament. Lawmakers pushed often-contentious debate forward on Thursday despite attempts by opposition lawmakers to disrupt proceedings ahead of next week’s vote on the deal.

Parliament members supporting al-Sadr, who make up 32 of the 275-member legislative body, have voiced forceful protest to any deal with the United States. Some al-Sadr supporters feel signing any pact with Washington would legitimize the U.S. “occupation” of the country.

During Friday’s street protests in Baghdad, thousands of al-Sadr supporters chanted “no, no, to the agreement” beneath a banner with a picture of bloody, cuffed hands reaching out from a map of Iraq and three keys labeled with American, Israeli and British flags, the Associated Press reported.

An al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad said his followers opposed the security deal over concerns that the Americans will not leave as planned, the New York Times reported.

“In this protest we want to show the Parliament that the popular resistance to this agreement is far bigger than that which has appeared in the last three or four days,” he said. “There is no guarantee that what has been written and the promises the prime minister has made will be practical — for example, the withdrawal.”

In the Iraqi parliament this week, shouting between a few legislators quickly escalated into an entire room of fist-pounding and shoves that led to lawmakers pouring out into the building’s hallways.

On Thursday, al-Sadr supporters in parliament attempted to block the procedural reading of the pact, leading guards to quell the outbursts.

Parliament eventually completed the reading. It was the last step before opening debate on the pact, though disruptions reportedly could delay Monday’s planned vote by a day or two. Parliament was not in session Friday in observance of the Muslim holy day.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly defended the pact twice this week, first in a televised address Tuesday and then in a news conference Thursday.

At the news conference, al-Maliki said the failure of the security pact would threaten his country’s sovereignty, “which would drive us back to searching for another agreement,” he said, according to the AP.

In addition to Sadrist opposition to the deal, lawmakers from three other political blocs protested the presence of bodyguards inside parliament and vowed to boycott future sessions. The small Shiite Fadhila party, with 15 seats, and a Sunni Arab bloc with 11 seats plan to join Sadrists in opposition to the deal, echoing unease over the continued presence of U.S. troops in the country.

“The groups don’t have enough combined seats to prevent a quorum in the 275-seat legislature if enough other lawmakers show up, but their action will deny al-Maliki the broad backing he needs to avoid deepening rifts that have hobbled reconciliation,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Shiite coalition blocs, which make up 85 seats, and the Kurdish bloc’s 54 seats currently support the deal and add up to a slim majority.

Some lawmakers may also have their eye on next year’s elections and their own political image in their approach to the agreement, analysts say.

“I think the Sadrists are the main party opposing the U.S. presence,” said Joost Hitermann of the International Crisis Group, adding that anyone who is against the deal “is probably just trying to show his nationalist self before the elections, knowing that … the SOFA will pass anyway,” he said to the Times.

Al-Maliki himself is up for re-election next year and worked to win concessions in the agreement to expand Iraqi power over the U.S. mission. U.S. ambassadors and military officials in the region engaged in nine months of negotiations with the prime minister and his staff to reach the final security deal.

Under the terms of the agreement, U.S. troops must be out of cities by June 30, 2009, and the entire country by the end of 2011.

If the agreement passes next week in parliament, President Jalal Talabani and vice presidents Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashemi — each of whom has veto power — will be tasked with its final passage and ratification.

Meanwhile, a much smaller demonstration in support of the agreement was held in volatile Diyala province, northwest of Baghdad, where local Sunni and Shiite tribes have allied with the government to drive out insurgents.

A couple hundred people gathered near the provincial capital of Baquba, including several tribal sheikhs, holding portraits of al-Maliki and calling on parliament to approve the agreement, according to the AP.

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