On anniversary of Saddam's fall, Iraq's Sadr issues warning on US presence
Hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr rallied thousands of followers Saturday. Their message: United States civilians as well as troops must leave by the end of the year.
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Sadr ended his message by calling on all his followers who could to register at the political party’s offices to engage in an open-ended protest until the Americans left.Skip to next paragraph
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Most Iraqis are deeply cynical about US intentions here.
“Iraq is a very rich country,” said Sabah al-Amiri, a government employee who came out to the protest. “Logically, I can’t believe the Americans will leave and ignore these interests easily.”
In the complex political climate here, the countdown for US forces to exit Iraq has placed the United States in a bind.
Under a painfully negotiated status of forces agreement, the remaining 47,000 US troops in Iraq are to be out of the country by the end of the year. Carrying out the withdrawal is becoming the main task of US troops here, overshadowing their official role of advising and assisting Iraqi forces.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a low-profile visit to Iraq this week, told Iraqi leaders that time was running out if they intended to ask for some US troops to stay next year.
Although Iraq lacks the capability to defend either its air space or land borders, asking for US forces to be stationed here past this year has become politically untenable. Iraqi officials suggest the US has abandoned the idea and will rely on the kind of bilateral agreements with limited scope it has for military cooperation with other countries.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki managed to cobble together a coalition government after last year’s disputed elections only after Moqtada Sadr, a longtime political enemy, agreed to join forces with Mr. Maliki.
A Sadr withdrawal from the coalition could bring down Maliki’s already fragile government.
Although the April 9 anniversary was declared a national holiday starting in 2004, in recent years discontent over the aftermath of the war has made it a controversial occasion. On Saturday, Maliki delivered a lengthy televised speech commemorating Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Sadr, Muqtada's father-in-law and founder of the Dawa party, who was executed on April 9, 1980. The prime minister, however, made no mention of the symbolic end of Saddam's regime on the same date in 2003.
Firdous Square, where the statue was toppled, was deserted on the anniversary. But a small part of the original statue of Saddam, Saddam’s shoe, is still visible. It reemerged after the abstract sculpture that replaced his statue was worn away.
Across the square at the Palestine Hotel, where a US tank round killed two journalists in 2003, scaffolding is going up as the renovated hotel prepares to reopen for an Arab League summit scheduled for May, marking Iraq’s re-emergence in the region.
Laith Hammoudi contributed reporting.
IN PICTURES: Troops come home