Thousands of Iraqis filled the streets of Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood this afternoon to demonstrate against a long-term United States presence in Iraq, the first significant anti-American rally in the massive Shiite slum in more than two years.
As American helicopters hovered overhead, young and old men and even children flowed out of their weekly Friday prayers and began burning American flags and chanting "no, no to America" and "yes, yes to independence."
The residents carried posters of Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army has fought against U.S. soldiers and who is accused of carrying out much of the violence here. Two days ago Sadr called on supporters to rally against an agreement currently under discussion that could allow the U.S. to build permanent bases in Iraq and grant American citizens in Iraq immunity from prosecution.
Today's rallies — which were held in Sadr City as well as in Barsa, Kufa, Nasarriah and Amarah, cities where Sadr has influence — come as the Iraqi Army is patrolling areas loyal to Sadr, trying to convince residents to rely more on Iraqi soldiers than on the Mahdi Army.
Sheikh Mohannad Al-Gazawi, the imam who led Friday prayers during 105-degree heat, told attendees that the agreement "aims at paving the way for a 99-year period of American control of Iraq."
"All of us are against this agreement," one Sadr City resident, wearing a keffiyah, told ABC News. "All of us condemn it."
The protestors carried signs that called the long-term agreement "worse than the occupation itself" and a "war declaration against the Iraqi people."
Iraqi soldiers monitored the rally, some of them talking on their cell phones. The Iraqi military has been patrolling Sadr City since May 20, when Sadr representatives and the largest Shiite bloc signed a truce deal. U.S. forces have stayed out of the center of the city, restricting themselves to the two southernmost sectors.
"The reasons for the peaceful demonstration were not made obvious," the U.S. military said in a statement. "Their ability to hold peaceful gatherings such as this demonstrates the improvements in security — where people now feel safe enough to gather and let their voices be heard."
The U.S. is pushing for the long-term agreement to be completed in the next two months. It would provide a legal framework for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, replacing the United Nations mandate under which the U.S. has been fighting since 2003.
But this week, Iraqi leaders have voiced increasing opposition to the agreement. On Monday, Iraq's national security council asked the prime minister to ensure that the deal would not violate Iraqi independence.
On Thursday, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the largest parliament bloc, released a statement saying, "Since many of the specified points of the deal violate Iraq's national sovereignty, so they are not acceptable to Iraqis."
The United States has defended the deal, but the opposition makes it increasingly unlikely that it will be signed in the timetable the U.S. has set.
Sadr representatives indicate they will continue to organize opposition until the deal is scrapped or Iraqis are allowed to vote on it in a referendum.
A statement made by Sadr this week calls for the Iraq people to be "educated about the items in the agreement and how harmful they are" to Iraq.