WORLD> Middle East
Thousands march in Baghdad against US pact
Updated: 2008-10-18 17:28

BAGHDAD - Thousands of followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets on Saturday in a demonstration against a pact that would allow US forces to stay in Iraq for three more years.

Worshippers holding a picture of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, chant slogans after Friday prayers in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday. Oct. 17, 2008. [Agencies] 

Marchers waved Iraqi flags and chanted "Yes, yes Iraq! No, no to the occupation!"

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"It is a peaceful demonstration, demanding that the occupier leave and the government not sign the pact," Ahmed al-Masoudi, a Sadrist member of parliament, told Reuters.

Demonstrators set fire to a US flag, but the atmosphere appeared mostly peaceful.

Iraqi authorities said the demonstration was authorized and security had been increased to protect the protesters, who were marching from Sadr's stronghold of Sadr City in the east of the capital to a nearby public square at a university.

"They have permission from the prime minister and the interior minister to hold a peaceful demonstration," the government's Baghdad security spokesman Qassim Moussawi said.

"It is a part of democracy that people can protest freely, but we hope that they will understand the security measures that we have taken to protect them," he said. Male and female security screeners were in place to search bags on the route.

Sadrists described the event as a rescheduled "million man march" initially called in April when Sadr followers were battling US forces in Baghdad and the south. But now, with little fighting taking place, the numbers appeared much smaller.

Still, the show of strength by Sadr's followers was a reminder to the government of the hostility among much of the public to the pact with the United States.

The pact would replace a UN Security Council resolution authorizing the US presence and give Iraq's elected government authority over the US force for the first time.

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