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Moqtada al-Sadr Supporters Protest New Military Pact  in Baghdad

Thousands of noisy demonstrators filled Baghdad's renowned Firdous Square to protest a new military pact between Iraq and the United States which is being debated in parliament. Radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who called for the protest, is demanding that the Iraqi parliament reject the pact, which is set to take effect in January, as Edward Yeranian reports from Cairo.

Throngs of mostly Shi'ite supporters of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr filled Baghdad's Firdous Square to protest a new security pact between Iraq and the United States that is being debated in parliament.

Sadr has been demanding that the Iraqi parliament reject the new pact, which would allow U.S. forces to remain in Iraq until December 2011. The old U.N. mandate expires on December 31.

Protesters chanted anti-U.S. slogans and waved banners decrying the new security pact, such as "no, no, to the security agreement," and "occupation forces must go, now."

One demonstrator, who gave his name as Abdul Amir Aboud, said that he was against the new accord, which some political leaders are trying to ram through parliament.

He says that the demonstration shows that the people reject the new Security pact with the United States, which he thinks has been imposed on them, and which is now being whisked through the Iraqi parliament and the government.

In a symbolic gesture, Moqtada al-Sadr supporters strung up an effigy of U.S. President George Bush from a statue in Firdous Square to express their displeasure with the United States.

Thousands of Iraqis tore down a statue of deposed former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the same square, shortly after U.S. forces arrived in Baghdad in 2003.

Al Jazeera TV reported that both Shi'ites and Sunnis took part in the demonstration, which followed an unusual joint Friday prayer session. Media reports, however, say that most of the demonstrators were Shi'ite.

Moqtada al-Sadr's top spokesman in Baghdad, Salman al Freiji also told al Jazeera TV that the "U.S. occupiers must leave the country immediately" and that parliament must reject the security pact, which he claims has "unacceptable secret provisions."

Iraqi military forces kept a close watch on demonstrators, placing sharp-shooters on rooftops surrounding Firdous Square.

National Security Advisor Mufawaq al Rubaie, who helped draft the new pact, refused to comment on Friday's demonstrations when asked by VOA.

Iraq's parliament had a stormy debate over the text of the new agreement Thursday, with Iraqi government station al Iraqia showing members of parliament trying to shout each other down and others trying to stir up a frenzy.

With a vote set for the beginning of next week, analyst Paul Salem, who heads the Carnegie Center for Peace in the Middle East, thinks that it's too soon to tell what may happen.

"Well, it's certainly touch and go. I mean, the vote is for Monday and it's not clear that [Prime Minister] Maliki has all the votes necessary," he said. "The coalition of Sadrists and some of the Sunni groups and some of the secularists who are against it are a strong coalition. There is also issues of a quorum, because it's the beginning of the haj season and some deputies have already left and does really put the approval of the status of forces agreement somewhat up in the air. Maliki is doing his best to get the votes necessary. It's probably touch and go down to the wire. I don't think anybody can predict."

Moqtada al-Sadr is also a long-standing ally of Iran, and Salem thinks that it's still not entirely clear what position the Iranians are taking in the debate over the new military pact.

"There have been conflicting statements from different Iranian authorities," he said. "The head of the judicial branch welcomed the agreement, whereas Larijani, the head of parliament, while saying that it's a much better draft than the one that the Americans initially tabled, he publicly said that the parliament should still oppose it. So, it seems that either that there are different Iranian factions pulling in different directions, or they're sitting on the fence on this one."

Despite the loud debate in parliament and attempts by Moqtada al-Sadr's block of 30 deputies to shout down the accord, a majority of Iraq's 275 member legislative body is still believed to support it.