Sadrists call for vote on US pact
Loyalists of radical Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr called on the Iraqi government yesterday to hold a public referendum on a long-term security deal with the United States.
Widespread opposition to the deal has raised doubts that negotiators can meet a July target to finalise a pact to keep US troops in Iraq after the current UN mandate expires at the end of the year.
The US military, meanwhile, said an American Marine died on Friday in a non-combat related incident in Iraq, pushing the number of Americans killed this month to 21 as May draws to a close.
While the number is not final, it would be the lowest monthly death toll since February 2004, when 20 troops died, according to an Associated Press tally based on military figures.
The Iraqi monthly toll also was down, with 516 violent deaths reported to the AP by police and other officials, the lowest since 375 were killed in December 2005.
Senior Sadrists, including lawmakers Falah Hassan Shanshal and Maha Adel, met in the cleric’s Sadr City office in Baghdad and issued a statement calling on the Iraqi government to stop negotiations with the US and to hold a public referendum on the issue.
Al Sadr also has called for a referendum along with weekly protests against the deal.
US President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki signed a statement last December on the future of US-Iraqi relations.
US 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 US troops to remain in the country after a UN mandate runs out.
Although US 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. US officials have declined to comment on the talks until the draft is completed.
The Sadrists said they “absolutely reject” the agreement and urged Iraqis to continue peaceful demonstrations against it. Tens of thousands rallied against the deal on Friday.
Most of the protesters appeared to be followers of Al Sadr, the hardline Shia 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, with concerns raised in recent days from a militant Sunni clerical group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, one of Iraq’s most powerful Shia politicians Abdul-Aziz Al Hakim and Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani.
The US military has continued to target what it calls Iranian-backed Shia militia factions, warning key leaders have fled to other areas as American and Iraqi forces closed in on them in Sadr City.
American troops acting on tips in eastern Baghdad yesterday captured a suspect believed to be a key assistant to one of the fugitive militia leaders, according to a statement. The man captured was accused of kidnapping and managing funds for the so-called special groups.