BAGHDAD — Thousands of followers of militant Muqtada al Sadr peacefully took to the streets Friday following his call to protest a bilateral pact that would govern the economic, security and political relationship between Iraq and the United States.
The Status of Forces Agreement and an economic and political accord are expected to be completed by July and must pass the parliament before being finalized. Already voices of dissent are in the air.
The United Nation's mandate that allows foreign forces to occupy Iraq will not be renewed at the end of the year. So any future U.S. military involvement in the war-torn nation can only continue with such an agreement.
From Sadr City to Kufa in southern Iraq, thousands of followers of Sadr prayed and then peacefully stood in protest. In Sadr City, followers set fire to an American flag and an image of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Saddam Hussein's green military uniform.
"A curse upon him who agrees!" demonstrators chanted. "We are with you Sayyed Muqtada for liberating Iraq from the aggressors."
They held up banners denouncing the impending agreement between Iraq and the United States as "worse than the occupation."
Nearby stood buildings reduced to rubble in a battle in Sadr City between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. and Iraqi security forces. Men waited at a checkpoint at a towering concrete wall isolating the southern edge of Sadr City from the rest of the vast slum.
Before the prayers, thousands of men in Sadr city sat outside the Sadr office on prayer rugs as Sheikh Mohanned al Gharrawi denounced the negotiations draped in an Iraqi flag.
"The agreement says that there will be a security, military and economic extension that America controls," he said. "Why do they want to break the backbone of Iraq? The agreement wants to put an American in each house...this agreement is poison mixed in poison, not poison in honey because there is no honey at all."
In Kufa, Sheikh Asaad al Nasseri echoed the sentiment to his Sadrist congregation.
"The agreement states that the relationship between the two countries will be to the interest of both people, in both countries that have sacrificed a lot to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people," al Nasiri said, "What sacrifices has America made for the Iraqi citizen? Killing, torture and imprisonment is all that the Iraqi people have gained from the Americans."
Sadr followers are notoriously against the American presence in Iraq, and their militant wing, the Mahdi Army, is touted as a resistance group against a foreign occupation. But they are not the only ones concerned about the future security agreement and what it would entail.
Iraqi officials worry that current negotiations would force Iraq into a deal that would give immunity to American military personnel and security contractors if they killed civilians, and allow the United States to detain Iraqis indefinitely.
The negotiations are shrouded in secrecy and Iraqi officials said they'd been instructed by American officials not to discuss the details. But even American allies in the nation worry they are getting the short end of the stick. Iraq is still considered an international threat to security and stability under the Security Council, known as Chapter 7. The agreement would lead to removing Iraq from the category where they were put following Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
"Now Iraq is under Chapter 7 and it does not have full sovereignty so when it makes negotiations with the United States, the results won't be fair," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker. "When the Americans tell you that we won't remove you from Chapter 7 unless you make this treaty with us, this is a precondition. Why should we pay the price for what Saddam did. Before making the agreement you see all these people rejecting it."
At the Buratha mosque in Baghdad, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, ISCI, the most powerful Shiite party in the nation, also used the pulpit to criticize a future agreement with the United States.
"The Iraqi people should see every single letter in (the agreement) and it should be transparent. What the people accept we do and what they reject we do," said ISCI lawmaker Jalal al Din al Saghir in his Friday sermon. "Most of what the Americans offered was against Iraq's sovereignty. If this treaty is done it won't be on Iraq's sovereignty, constitution and its land."
The Sadrists have been asked to protest every Friday following prayers until the agreement is rejected.