BAGHDAD, Iraq – Hundreds of followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took to the streets after Friday prayers in Shiite areas to protest plans for a long-term security pact between Iraq and the United States.
Iraqi officials and lawmakers have opposed the proposed security pact, which would provide a legal framework for the presence of U.S.-led forces after a U.N. mandate expires later this year. The opposition claims it infringes on Iraq's independence and sovereignty.
Sadrist Sheik Assad al-Nassiri warned the agreement, which faces a July 31 target date for completion, will "humiliate Iraqis, rob the Iraqi government of its sovereignty and give the occupier the upper hand."
"We do believe that the presence of the occupation is the main reason behind all of our crises, and unfortunately we hear some of our government officials calling on the occupation forces to stay," he said during a sermon in Kufa.
Worshippers poured out onto the streets in Kufa as well as Baghdad's Sadr City after Friday prayers chanting "No, no to America! No, no to the agreement!" and carrying banners that said "We will not accept Iraq to be an American colony."
Al-Sadr has called for weekly protests against the deal, drawing criticism from other powerful Shiite leaders, as well as Sunni politicians and Iran.
In Tehran, Friday prayer leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, thanked the Iraqi government and clerics in the country for their opposition during the past week to the U.S.-Iraq security pact.
"The great clerics took a very commendable stance regarding the pact," said Khatami. "The Iraqi government also took a praiseworthy stance and said it would not sign the pact."
The comments came a week after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, said talks on an initial draft had stalled but were continuing.
The White House said late Thursday that President Bush discussed the ongoing negotiations during a teleconference call with al-Maliki and the dialogue over the agreement was "proceeding well."
"President Bush confirmed the United States' commitment to forge an agreement that fully respects Iraqi sovereignty," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Critics have denounced the purported failure of the U.S. to offer a firm commitment to defend the country from any invasion and a demand for immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts for all American personnel in Iraq.
Also in contention has been the number of bases the United States would maintain in the country and whether the U.S. military will retain the power to arrest Iraqi civilians and keep them in U.S. detention facilities.
Meanwhile, Sadrists criticized what they have called "random detentions" by U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces during a military operation in the southern city of Amarah. No fighting was reported as the crackdown entered its second day.
"The believers are being arrested everyday in Amarah and other cities without arrest warrants in contrary to what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says," Sheik Jassim al-Muttairi said during his sermon in Baghdad's main Shiite district of Sadr City.
Tensions rose Thursday when Iraqi troops arrested the mayor, Rafia Abdul-Jabbar, and 16 others for alleged involvement with militias in Amarah, a Sadrist stronghold and hub of smuggler networks bringing in weapons from Iran to Shiite extremists.
The U.S. military, which has troops supporting the Iraqis in Amarah, said separately that 17 artillery rounds and a machine gun were turned into Iraqi security forces in Amarah during a four-day amnesty that expired Wednesday.
The troops also had seized hundreds of mines, mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and four homemade rocket launchers in the vicinity of the city, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, the military said.
In separate operations against Sunni insurgents, U.S. troops killed four suspected militants and detained 18 in raids Thursday and Friday north of Baghdad targeting Al Qaeda in Iraq.