Tens of thousands rallied in several cities Friday against a proposed U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, raising doubts that negotiators can meet a July target to finalize a pact to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after the current U.N. mandate expires.
Although U.S. officials insist they are not seeking permanent bases, suspicion runs deep among many Iraqis that the Americans want to keep at least some troops in the country for many years.
"We denounce the government's intentions to sign a long-term agreement with the occupying forces," Asaad al-Nassiri, a sheik loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said during a sermon in Kufa. "Our army will be under their control in this agreement, and this will lead to them having permanent bases in Iraq."
President Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a statement last December on the future of U.S.-Iraqi relations, saying they planned to finalize a new security agreement by July 31 — in time for Iraq's parliament to approve the deal before a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
U.S. and Iraqi officials began negotiations in March on a blueprint for the long-term security agreement and a second deal, to establish the legal basis for U.S. troops to remain in the country after the U.N. mandate runs out.
Rallies in Baghdad and several other Iraqi cities followed Friday prayer services and were the first in wake of a call by al-Sadr for weekly protests against the deal, even though few details of the talks have been released.
Most of the protesters appeared to be followers of al-Sadr, the hardline Shiite cleric and militia leader whose Mahdi Army battled American and Iraqi troops in Baghdad's Sadr City district until a truce this month ended nearly seven weeks of fighting.
But opposition to the agreement appears to be growing beyond the Sadrist movement.
A militant Sunni clerical group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, denounced the "ring of secrecy" surrounding the talks and said the proposed deal would pave the way for "military, economic and cultural domination" by the Americans.
Moving toward a 'consensus'?
On Thursday, the head of the country's biggest mainstream Shiite party, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, said some unspecified points under negotiation "violate Iraq's national sovereignty," adding that a "national consensus" was emerging against the proposed agreement.
Al-Hakim is al-Sadr's main rival in the majority Shiite community and maintains close ties to the country's main Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Aides to the powerful ayatollah say he also has reservations about the deal.
Some congressional Democrats are also insisting that Congress should authorize any agreement that would obligate the United States to defend Iraq.
Before the Friday protests, al-Sadr's office in Baghdad issued a statement branding the negotiations as "a project of humiliation" aimed at turning Iraq "into a small stooge of the United States."
U.S. officials have declined to comment on the talks until the draft is completed.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said two weeks ago that "we are making progress" although other Iraqi officials acknowledged there were many unresolved issues, including how many Americans would remain and what they would do. American soldiers now enjoy full immunity from the Iraqi legal system.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to talk about the negotiations.
Rallies against the security deal occurred as the U.S. military was seeking to contain the public relations damage caused by reports that an American Marine handed out coins promoting Christianity to Sunni Muslims in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
Sunni officials and residents said a Marine distributed about 10 coins at a checkpoint controlling access to the city, the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the war.
One side asked: "Where will you spend eternity?"
The other contained a verse from the New Testament: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16."
Mohammed Hassan Abdullah said he witnessed the coins being handed out on Tuesday as he was waiting at the Halabsa checkpoint, although he didn't receive one himself.
The U.S. military responded quickly to the incident, first reported by McClatchy Newspapers, removing a Marine from duty pending an investigation. Military regulations forbid proselytizing any religion.
"Indications are this was an isolated incident — an individual Marine acting on his own accord passing out coins," Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a spokesman for U.S. forces in western Iraq, said in an e-mailed statement.
Distribution of the coins was the second perceived insult to Islam by American service members this month. A U.S. Army sniper was sent out of the country after using a Quran, Islam's holy book, for target practice in a predominantly Sunni area west of Baghdad.
"This event did not happen by chance, but it was planned and done intentionally," Sheik Abdul-Rahman al-Zubaie, an influential tribal leader in Fallujah, said of the coins. "The Sunni population cannot accept and endure such a thing. I might not be able to control people's reactions if such incidents keep happening."