Updated 10/19 6:50 PM EST
At least 50,000 Iraqis joined a protest in the streets of Baghdad today, organized by followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, chanting anti-US and anti-occupation slogans and waving banners opposing the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which would keep US troops in Iraq through 2011. Organizers insisted turnout exceeded 1 million, but reporters at the scene expressed doubts over that claim.
Though Sadr was not personally present at the rally, he did address the crowd in a message directed at Iraqi lawmakers, read by Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi. In the statement he urged Iraq’s parliament to “champion the will of the people over that of the occupier” and oppose the pact. He also cautioned that passing the deal “will stigmatize Iraq and its government for years to come.”
Sadr is just one of many influential religious leaders, both Sunni and Shi’ite, speaking out against the SOFA. The high attendance for the rally underscores a growing popular hostility for the deal, which faces a long battle for approval in the Iraqi government.
Though it is unclear at this point whether the terms of the deal are finalized, officials reported this was the case earlier in the week though White House Press Secretary Dana Perino denied it yesterday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says it would be “difficult to reopen the text” and that it was time for parliament to either ratify or reject the deal. He added that “the next few days are very crucial for Iraqi leaders to decide.”
Popular and religious opposition to the deal as well as a splintering coalition government will make it extremely difficult for Iraq’s parliament to pass the deal. And even though a simple majority is all that is required for passage, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reportedly intends to submit it for consideration only if he is confident it will receive a two-thirds majority, fearing criticism if the vote is close.