Iraqis Protest Long-Term U.S. Military Presence

Thousands of Iraqis pour into streets in anti-American protest.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:05 AM

May 30, 2008— -- 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."