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DAY 3466: FRIDAY MAY 27TH 2011

Mahdi Army protests over US keeping troops in Iraq


TENS of thousands of followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr yesterday marched through Baghdad in a show of force as Iraqi leaders debated whether to keep US troops in the country beyond the end of the year. The crowd waved Iraqi flags and shouted "No, no, America!" as the Mahdi Army, as Mr al-Sadr's militia is known, marched through one of Baghdad's poorest neighbourhoods. "I am ready to fight the Americans whenever (Muqtada] orders me to," said Mohammed Moyad, 18, who said he skipped five days of school to train with his colleagues for the march.

US, Israeli and British flags were painted on the road to be stomped on by the marchers, and Iraqi military helicopters buzzed overhead while soldiers stood guard. The rally was seen as a message to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki about the staunch opposition by Iraq's most devout Shiites - and the ones who grudgingly helped him clinch a second term in office last year - to a continued US military presence into 2012.

Under a security agreement between Washington and Baghdad, the 46,000 combat troops still in Iraq are required to leave by 31 December. But Iraq's widespread instability has led US and Iraqi leaders to reconsider. Mr al-Sadr did not appear during the lengthy rally that only ended at prayer time. Adoring crowds surged at a convoy believed to be carrying him, but the vehicles drove away without stopping and it was unclear if the cleric was there.

Though the rally was billed as a peaceful demonstration, Mr al-Sadr's top aide, Salah al-Obeidi, said threats against the US still stand if the troops stay, echoing Mr al-Sadr's pledge to unleash the Mahdi Army if Iraq reneges on the December deadline. "We will be obliged to fight and do our best to liberate our country," Mr al-Obeidi said. American forces in Baghdad and southern Iraq have seen an increase in rocket and mortar attacks and roadside bombs in recent months.

US officials have blamed the rise in violence on Shiite militias backed by Iran, who are trying to take credit for driving US forces from Iraq. Iraqi security forces also come under attack, although usually by Sunni extremists trying to destabilise the country. Yesterday, a suicide bomber struck an Iraqi army patrol in western Baghdad, killing four soldiers and wounding 11 others, police and hospital officials said. Mr al-Obeidi said the point of the rally was to show that Iraqis are disciplined and can protect the country.


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