BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in the streets of Baghdad Saturday 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 Iraq's parliament reject the deal.
"These are the Iraqi people in front of you, rejecting this agreement," 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 this 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.
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U.S. officials are desperately hoping to finalize the agreement before Dec. 31, when a United Nations 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, American 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 American troops to "get out of my country."
Sadr has long criticized the American presence here and his followers regularly demonstrate against the U.S. occupation, though 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's been the biggest sticking point between the two sides: legal jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel here.
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.
The draft also calls for American troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by mid-2009 and from the country entirely by 2012.
"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 here 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 press 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."
Besides the issue of legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops and a timeline for American withdrawal, the agreement discusses a larger role for Iraqis in U.S. military operations.
Except in rare circumstances, American troops no longer would be allowed to make arrests or search homes without permission from Iraqi authorities. The Americans also would have to transfer anyone they detained to Iraqi custody within 24 hours.
(Kadhim is a McClatchy special correspondent. Corinne Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star.)
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