BAGHDAD — At the spot where U.S. forces helped Iraqis topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, protesters Friday tore down an effigy of President Bush and set it afire during a demonstration over plans to keep American troops in Iraq through 2011.
People began arriving at central Baghdad's Firdos Square just after sunrise, some having walked for hours across the capital. Most came from Sadr City, the stronghold of the Shiite Muslim cleric who called for the gathering, Muqtada Sadr.
Iraqi army snipers were perched on rooftops along the broad avenues leading to the square on a traffic roundabout decorated with fountains and greenery. The effigy of Bush, in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, dangled for hours as the crowd, which stretched for several blocks, knelt in prayer and listened to clerics denounce the Status of Forces Agreement.
The pact, which parliament is expected to vote on next week, requires American combat troops to pull out of Iraqi cities, towns and villages by the end of next June and sets a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But some people interviewed in the crowd insisted that the pact did not have any withdrawal deadlines. Others said that whatever the pact said, they did not trust the U.S. or Iraqi governments to abide by it.
"They want to keep extending and extending," Bassim Hamoud, dressed in a lavender shirt and pressed beige trousers, said as he neared one of the Iraqi army checkpoints set up on the edge of the rally. "If there was a concrete time limit, we would go for it."
Asked what time limit he wanted for a U.S. withdrawal, Hamoud replied, "We want them to leave today."
Protesters' comments reflected both the lack of knowledge of the pact and the distrust many Iraqis feel toward their government and the Americans as a result of unmet promises since the U.S.-led invasion. At the time the Hussein statue was toppled, most Iraqis weren't expecting that nearly six years down the line, they would still be living in a city with spotty electricity, sewage running through the streets of their neighborhoods, military checkpoints choking traffic and bombs going off regularly.
Loyalists of hard-line anti-U.S. leaders such as Sadr say that the violence would decrease if the Americans left and that Iraqis would be able to fix their own problems. As long as U.S. forces stay, they say, Iraq never will be sovereign.
"They will not leave," said Abed Sahib Mohammed Hadi, an elderly man in a beige suit. "If they wanted to leave they would never have built those huge bases.
"We don't even know what's in the pact," he added. "It's never been presented to the people."
The pact has been explained to the public at least twice by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, whose support propelled it through the Cabinet on Sunday and onto the floor of the parliament. Legislators loyal to Sadr tried to prevent the reading of the pact in the parliament, leading to a brawl in the chamber Tuesday and stalling debate.
If a vote is not held early next week, before a scheduled holiday, the parliament could have trouble meeting the Dec. 31, 2008, deadline when the United Nations mandate governing the presence of U.S. troops here expires. If the pact isn't passed by then, American forces will have no legal basis for being in Iraq.
On Friday, the crowd that swarmed central Baghdad was far different from the one that gathered around the Hussein statue in April 2003 and cheered as a U.S. tank helped yank down the structure. Chants of "No, no, no to the occupiers!" rose from the protesters. Iraqi flags fluttered in the breeze, along with giant posters of Sadr. Even after prayers had begun, men with colorful prayer mats under their arms streamed in from distant neighborhoods to join the gathering.
No official estimate of the crowd was given, though it appeared to be in the tens of thousands.
There was a heavy Iraqi military presence, but it remained on the edges of the crowd and kept watch from rooftops along the route, including from the mosque overlooking Firdos Square. Residents stood on their balconies or leaned out windows to watch the surging crowd.
After the effigy was dragged to the ground, protesters began jumping on it, even stamping out flames that erupted after someone set it afire.
It is doubtful that opponents can muster enough votes in parliament to kill the pact. But their vocal opposition and Friday's protest show that Maliki does not have the broad-based backing for the pact that he had sought. Passing it by a thin margin would make it difficult to mend the political divisions that have hobbled Iraq's government. It also could give hard-line members of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia an excuse for resuming attacks on U.S. and Iraqi security forces after months of relative quiet.
"This is a normal consequence: more fighting," said Mohammed Ismael, a 17-year-old student from Sadr City -- the sort of young man ripe for recruitment into the Mahdi Army. "We are against this agreement and we will resist it in any way we can."