Iraqi Shi'ite militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr has long been one of the galvanizing figures for opposition to the U.S. presence in the country. Friday's massive street protests against Washington's plans for a long-term strategic agreement with Iraq, along with his followers' call for a public referendum on the issue, were further evidence of this. But opposition, or at least skepticism, towards the U.S. appears to be spreading through the ranks of Baghdad's political establishment, even among partisans the United States hopes to win over.
"This agreement is so meager and poor, it achieves only the American security benefits and nothing for Iraq or the Iraqi people," said parliamentarian Umar Abdul Satar, a member of the main Sunni political bloc. "I don't know how the government will persuade itself or the parliament or the people."
American officials have said they hope to have a deal finalized by the end of July, a deadline negotiators appear unlikely to reach at this point. Virtually no details of the agreement have emerged during recent months as U.S. and Iraqi officials got started on hammering out drafts. Washington's public stance thus far suggests that the American vision for its relationship with Iraq is largely in step with widely aired Iraqi demands for full sovereignty. U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has said the agreement, which would replace the existing U.N. mandate allowing coalition forces in the country, will not call for permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq, a point many Iraqis consider a red line.
Few Iraqis believe American troops have plans to leave anytime soon in significant numbers, however. And many are beginning to suspect that the U.S. pledge not to establish permanent bases simply means it will push for decades-long military leases on the many sprawling U.S. facilities already sitting on the edge of major cities.
Two other divisive issues of sovereignty the agreement will likely have to tackle remain unresolved as well: The ability of U.S. troops to arrest and detain Iraqis and the applicability of Iraqi law on U.S. forces. At present U.S. forces are exempt from Iraqi law and have essentially unchecked powers to arrest and jail Iraqi citizens as part of military operations. Many Iraqis see revoking this as key to restoring a real sense of sovereignty to the country. But it's difficult to imagine U.S. policymakers agreeing to have their hands tied militarily in Iraq or allowing U.S. troops to risk possible trials in Iraqi courts.
Ridha Jawaad Taqee, the official spokesman for the mainstream Shi'ite political bloc aligned with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, stressed that nothing about the agreement has been finalized. "There is no absolute rejection against the agreement," said Taqee. "It's still under discussions, studying and consulting."
But the clock is ticking. The U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year. And the American negotiators have only until November to pursue the Bush administration's agenda without having to factor in the plans of a new president.
With reporting by Mazin Ezzat