BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr staged a military-style parade Thursday in Baghdad to demand that U.S. troops leave the country as scheduled by Dec. 31, a show of force intended to intimidate Iraqi officials who favor asking that some American troops stay on.
Dressed in T-shirts emblazoned with Iraqi flags, the men marched in groups of 100, swinging their arms in a military fashion as they passed a reviewing stand filled with Shiite clerics in the impoverished Shiite Sadr City section of Baghdad, named after Sadr's father.
"No, no, America. No, no, Israel," they chanted. To set the tempo, they punctuated their march by calling out "Mahdi," a reference to the disbanded Mahdi Army militia, in what sounded like a warning that it could be reconstituted if U.S. forces remain after year's end.
Sadr is the first major political leader to stage a public demonstration in what's expected to be a heated national debate during the next two months over the American troop presence. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said earlier this month that he'd decide by the end of July whether to seek a new agreement that would let U.S. troops stay longer.
In a speech Tuesday in Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he favored extending the American presence, noting that the Iraqi military will need help with logistics, intelligence and defending its airspace and that a continued U.S. military presence will send a "powerful signal that we're not leaving, that we will continue to play a part."
"All I can say is, from the standpoint of Iraq's future but also our role in the region, I hope they figure out a way to ask," Gates said.
The Sadr march, which lasted more than four hours, was interrupted about every 20 minutes by staged burnings of U.S. and Israeli flags.
"We reject on principle the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil, and therefore we reject the idea of extending the American presence," Hakim al Zamili, a member of Sadr's bloc in parliament, told McClatchy.
"The message to the Americans — 'depart or else' — is a legitimate demand," said Jamal al Bateekh, a former army major general who's a member of the Iraqiya coalition, which is in an uneasy government partnership with Maliki's State of Law coalition.
But he disputed the Sadrists on substantive grounds. "I do not believe that the security forces have the required training, nor the required equipment or weapons to do the job," Bateekh said.
Some in Maliki's coalition criticized the rally for displaying a military character while pretending to be a peaceful civilian march.
"When these innocent beguiled people are described" by the announcer at the rally as "time bombs in the hands of Sadr and the Hawza," or seminarians, "the purpose of the parade becomes crystal clear," parliamentarian Izzat al Shabendar said.
"The chants and slogans released by Mahdi Army during this 'civilian' parade are threatening to the other sects," he added.
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent. Shashank Bengali contributed to this article from Washington.)
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