BAGHDAD, October 18 – Angry Shiites chanted anti-US slogans and burnt effigies of American leaders at a mass rally Saturday in Baghdad called by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who urged Iraqi lawmakers to reject a planned US-Iraq security deal.,
Effigies of US President George W. Bush — with bandaged head and fractured right arm — and of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were set ablaze along with several American flags as protestors chanted anti-US slogans.
Tens of thousands of protestors spat out their anger at the US during a protest march which began at the cleric’s Sadr City bastion in east Baghdad and ended at nearby Mustansiriyah Square, where the effigies were torched.
"No, No, to America! No, No to the devil!" shouted crowds of men, women and children as they walked the three kilometre route through the dusty streets of Sadr City to the square.
Carrying Iraqi flags and banners of the Sadr movement, the demonstrators demanded an end to the US occupation of Iraq.
"Get out occupier! We demand an end to the occupation!" they shouted.
Large numbers of Sadr supporters had gathered since Friday night at Sadr City’s Mudhaffar Square where the protest march began, while many arrived at the venue from several Shiite regions of Iraq early Saturday.
"We are marching to reject the occupation," said Karim Kadhim, a Shiite from the holy city of Najaf.
"Would America like to be occupied by any other country? Would America like its sons to be attacked? Why are they occupying our country?" he asked.
"They have been lying for the past five years. They told us they are coming to free us and go. But they are still lying."
After the burning of the effigies and flags at Mustansiriyah Square, protestors chanted slogans praising Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.
"The Mahdi Army is still powerful and Sadr is still powerful," they chanted, referring to the cleric’s feared 60,000-strong militia.
The organisers of the march also read out a statement by Sadr in which he urged the Iraqi parliament to reject the proposed security deal with Washington.
"When the agreement is in your hands, the destiny of Iraq and its people is also in your hands," Sadr said.
"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."
US and Iraqi negotiators have reached agreement on a draft security deal which would govern the future status of American forces in Iraq after the present UN mandate ends in December, but the pact has still to be approved by leaders of both countries as well as the Iraqi parliament.
Details have not been made public but officials have previously said agreement was reached on a timeline for a withdrawal of all US combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
A key point of contention in the months-long negotiations has been whether US troops and contractors would fall exclusively under US jurisdiction if accused of serious crimes in Iraq.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Friday told reporters in Washington that the American military leaders "are all satisfied that our men and women in uniform serving in Iraq are well protected."
Sadr and his followers are opposed to any kind of deal with Washington that would keep American forces in the country.
The protest was originally to be held on April 9 — the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime — but was postponed due to violent clashes between Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and US and Iraqi forces.
The cleric, reportedly in Iran, has been a strong opponent of the US presence in Iraq and launched two bloody rebellions in 2004 from Najaf which killed hundreds of his militiamen but established him as a hardline leader of the masses.