BAGHDAD – Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Saturday called on Iraq's parliament to reject a U.S.-Iraqi security pact as tens of thousands of his followers rallied in Baghdad against the deal.
The mass public show of opposition came as U.S. and Iraqi leaders face a Dec. 31 deadline to reach agreement on the deal, which would replace an expiring U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
Al-Sadr's message was read by his aide Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi before a huge crowd of mostly young men waving Iraqi and green Shiite flags and chanting slogans including "no, no to the agreement" and "yes to Iraq."
"The Iraqi government has abandoned its duty before God and its people and referred the agreement to you knowing that ratifying it will stigmatize Iraq and its government for years to come," he said, in the address also intended to reach lawmakers.
"I am with every Sunni, Shiite or Christian who is opposed to the agreement ... and I reject, condemn and renounce the presence of occupying forces and bases on our beloved land," the message added.
Al-Sadr, who is living in Iran, also cast doubt on the Iraqi government's argument the security pact is a step toward ending the U.S. presence in Iraq. The deal would require U.S. forces to leave by Dec. 31, 2011 unless Iraq asked some of them to stay.
"If they tell you that the agreement ends the presence of the occupation, let me tell you that the occupier will retain its bases. And whoever tells you that it gives us sovereignty is a liar," al-Sadr said.
Security was tight as demonstrators marched from the main Shiite district of Sadr City to the more central Mustansiriyah Square.
Iraqi security forces manned checkpoints with snipers positioned on roof tops and Humvees controlling all the roads leading to the square. Giant Iraqi flags covered nearby buildings.
Organizers insisted over 1 million people turned out for the demonstration, but Associated Press reporters and photographers at the scene estimated the crowd in the tens of thousands. Police had no official estimate.
"This demonstration is our response to the agreement," said Nasser al-Saadi, one of 30 Sadrist lawmakers. "It is also meant to demand a popular referendum on the agreement."
The three-hour gathering ended without trouble except for when several young demonstrators pelted army troops manning a checkpoint with rocks. There were no injuries and no arrests.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and the Bush administration have hammered out a draft agreement after months of bitter negotiations. But the Iraqi parliament must ratify the deal.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, could be politically isolated if he tries to win parliament's backing in the face of widespread opposition.
Several Sunni and Shiite clerics, who wield considerable influence in shaping public opinion, also spoke out during Friday prayer services against the draft, complaining that the Iraqi public knows little about the terms.
A copy of the draft accord obtained by The Associated Press specifies that U.S. troops must leave Iraqi cities by the end of June and be gone by 2012. It gives Iraq limited authority over off-duty, off-base U.S. soldiers who commit crimes.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said it was time for a decision.
"I think it will be difficult to reopen negotiations," he said during a joint news conference with Bahrain's foreign minister in Baghdad. "I believe that the next few days will be crucial for the Iraqi leaders to make a political decision on this agreement."
He stressed the pact did not provide for permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq.
"This is a temporary agreement. It's not binding," he said.
Al-Sadr's loyalists quit al-Maliki's government last year in protest against the prime minister's failure to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq. They also quit the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc in parliament.
They boycotted a meeting Friday night between al-Maliki and leaders of parliamentary blocs to discuss a draft of the agreement and plan to vote against it when it comes up for a vote in the 275-seat parliament.
Also on Saturday, Iraqi officials said the leader of a U.S.-allied Sunni group that turned against al-Qaida was killed in a drive-by shooting south of Baghdad. Abdul-Hadi al-Janabi was a local leader in the Sons of Iraq group, which the U.S. credits with helping improve security in former insurgent strongholds.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.