IRAQ: Thousands march to protest Status of Forces Agreement
Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's call to followers to hold a mass prayer and protest in central Baghdad to denounce the new Status of Forces Agreement reached between U.S. and Iraqi negotiators brought tens of thousands of people swarming into central Baghdad's Firdos Square on Friday. This is none other than the place where U.S. forces helped Iraqis joyously pull down a giant statue of Saddam Hussein back in April 2003.
This time, the crowd gathered at the square was just as frenzied, but there were no American forces in sight. And this time, the protesters dragged down something very different: an effigy of President Bush. Their anger is over the SOFA, which would keep U.S. forces in Iraq through December 2011. That's far too long, according to the anti-U.S. cleric Sadr, and according to those in the crowd Friday.
They included young men like 19-year-old Ali Mohammed, who said the pact won't serve Iraqi interests if it is passed by the parliament next week, when a vote is expected. "We want the occupiers to leave. We don't want to form agreements with them," he said as he and a friend entered the rally site. There were plenty of old people in the crowd as well, including a woman who called herself Um Hadhi, who had walked for hours by herself from Sadr City to attend the protest.
"We are against the Americans. We want them to get out. Let them just say goodbye and leave us in peace," she said, deep wrinkles creasing her face. She refused to give her age. "I'm still young!" she said with a laugh as she headed for home after the rally.
As with most Sadrist protests, this one ended with the burning of an American symbol. Usually that's a flag. This time, it was the effigy, which bore little resemblance to Bush except for the suit and tie. In fact, from a distant rooftop, it bore a striking resemblance to L. Paul Bremer III, the one-time U.S.-appointed administrator of Iraq whose decrees are now blamed for many of the problems plaguing Iraq.
Covering a rally of this size is always tricky. You don't want to be caught in the middle of a melee if things turn sour. You need to be close enough to see what's going on, but not so close that all you see are other faces in the crowd. And this being Baghdad, one is always aware of the possibility for sudden violence. Many huge Shiite gatherings have been targeted by suicide bombers.
This time, there were no such problems. Iraqi security forces rimmed the perimeter of the wide avenues where most marchers passed but stayed confined to their vehicles or perched on rooftops. Men were frisked and women's bags were checked. Weapons were not allowed past checkpoints. The crowd, clearly vehement in its desire to see the end of the United States presence here, roared anti-U.S. chants that floated up and down the avenue. When the prayer ended and it came time to burn the effigy, protesters swarmed into the square, tore it down from its perch, and began stomping on top of it. A cloud of brown smoke rose after someone lit it on fire. More stomping followed. Then, it was time to go home.
-- Tina Susman and Caesar Ahmed in Baghdad
Photo credits: Caesar Ahmed