Followers of a Shiite cleric on Friday stomped on and burned an effigy of President George W. Bush in the same central Baghdad square where Iraqis beat a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein with their sandals five years earlier.
Chanting and waving flags, thousands of Muqtada al-Sadr's followers filled Firdous Square to protest a proposed U.S.-Iraqi security pact that would allow American troops to stay for three more years. The Bush effigy was placed on the same pedestal where U.S. Marines toppled the ousted dictator's statue in one of the iconic images of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
After a mass prayer, demonstrators pelted the effigy with plastic water bottles and sandals. One man hit it in the face with his sandal. The effigy fell head first into the crowd and protesters jumped on it before setting it ablaze.
Before it fell, the effigy held a sign that said: "The security agreement ... shame and humiliation."
Iraq's parliament is expected to vote next week on the plan to keep U.S. forces in Iraq for another three years. But the noisy opposition by the Sadrists indicates that even if it is approved, the deal could remain divisive in a country struggling for reconciliation.
Opponents view the security deal as a surrender to U.S. interests despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, saying the pact would eventually lead to full sovereignty.
Al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, was not at the protest, though he wrote a sermon read by his representative, Sheik Abdul Hadi al-Mohammadawi, calling the U.S. "the enemy of Islam."
"The government must know that it is the people who help it in the good and the bad times. If it throws the occupier out all the Iraqi people will stand by it," the sermon read, using common rhetoric for the United States.
Al-Sadr reiterated in the sermon that his followers in both the armed and the peaceful factions of his movement will continue to work for the removal of U.S. forces.
Security was tight for the demonstration, with the area closed to traffic and heavily guarded by Iraqi soldiers in Humvees. Army snipers took positions on top of buildings overlooking the square. The Sadrists also provided their own security, searching worshippers as they approached the square.
The protesters included two Sunni clerics. Many arrived at the square on foot or by bus and carried prayer rugs, pieces of cardboard or newspapers for the mass prayer.
They waved Iraqi flags and green Shiite banners, chanting, "No, no to the American agreement!" and, "No, no to the agreement of humiliation!"
The Cabinet has approved the agreement, meaning it stands a good chance of passage in the 275-seat parliament where the government's parties dominate. But for al-Maliki's Dawa party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, its senior government partner, the margin of support is almost as important as the victory itself. A narrow vote for approval will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the new terms governing the U.S. troop presence.
Al-Sadr's followers and other legislators opposed to the pact also try to could use the narrow vote to turn their anti-American message into a defining issue in provincial elections on Jan. 31 and general elections late in 2009.
If the agreement passes the legislature, it will go to the president and his two deputies for ratification. Each one has veto power.
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