STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Renee is away. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Iraqis seem to agree they would like American forces to leave. They do not agree on how quickly the Americans should go or what happens after. That explains why an agreement over U.S. forces led to a protest today in a central Baghdad square. Many of the protesters are followers of the Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr, who wants the U.S. out now. He does not accept the so-called Status of Forces Agreement that, if Iraq approves on Monday, would keep U.S. forces another three years. A little while ago, we found NPR's Ivan Watson at the demonstration.
Ivan, would you describe what you've been seeing?
IVAN WATSON: Steve, I'm right now looking at tens of thousands of Iraqis standing barefoot on prayer mats in the street, in Baghdad's Firdos Square.
(Soundbite of Arabic chanting over loudspeaker)
WATSON: They came here in large numbers carrying the prayer mats rolled up under one arm, and many of them Iraqi flags under the other. And they're here for this protest, Friday prayers and a series of speeches by Shiite clerics, including one read in the name of Muqtada al-Sadr, that fiercely anti-American cleric who has battled many times against U.S. forces. And they are denouncing this proposed Iraqi-American security pact.
INSKEEP: I do have to say that if you're talking about people out in the streets, prayer mats, speeches and flags, it at least sounds like a far more peaceful scene in Baghdad than you might have seen a couple of years ago.
WATSON: Absolutely, Steve. I felt very comfortable walking among these worshippers. The only request they really had for me was to take my shoes off, to make sure I didn't step on their prayer mats with my shoes on.
INSKEEP: And we're talking with NPR's Ivan Watson and hearing sounds of a protest in the background. Can you remind us what this agreement is that is significant enough to bring people out into the streets, Ivan Watson, the Status of Forces Agreement?
WATSON: Well, this basically calls for U.S. forces to pull back from Iraqi towns and cities by the end of June 2009, and it calls for a complete withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011. In addition to that, it stipulates that American forces cannot carry out operations, cannot raid houses or arrest Iraqis without first getting permission from the Iraqi government. So, it does mark a pretty dramatic change for the status of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. That is, if it is approved by the parliament.
INSKEEP: And I guess the big question, Ivan, is it not, is, what happens as the U.S. withdraws, if, in fact, it happens, and after the U.S. goes away, who is in charge of the country then?
WATSON: Well, theoretically, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces, who are much more visible, do take much more of a front position in military and security operations. But I just spoke with an Iraqi army officer who's running security next to this huge protest. And he said that it's too early for the American forces to withdraw; they still need U.S. military help on the ground here.
INSKEEP: We're listening to NPR's Ivan Watson at the scene of a demonstration in Baghdad. And that is only one place where this political debate is taking place over the future of U.S. forces in Iraq. Iraq's parliament is debating the pact, could vote on it Monday, as we mentioned. Then the debate has been contentious, maybe even more contentious than out there on the streets, Ivan?
WATSON: Steve, that scene, that fracas that actually broke out in the parliament, was led by parliament members loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Now, a number of Iraqi political parties have voiced opposition to the proposed draft agreement. They've said they will not vote in favor of it, if a vote takes place next week. But it is the Sadrist lawmakers who have been most active, let's say, in showing their opposition, pounding the desks and actually rushing up to the podium. And one of the lawmakers was seen sweeping flower arrangements and papers off the desks of the speaker of the parliament. The protesters here, of course, Steve, have been much more peaceful. But there is a big question, Steve, about how this law can be approved. There's a debate whether or not it can pass in parliament with a simple majority, 50 percent plus one of lawmakers voting in favor, or more than two-thirds, and even pro-government officials will argue that you really need more than two-thirds to have some kind of consensus and hope of a peaceful future in Iraq.
INSKEEP: NPR's Ivan Watson is in the streets of Baghdad, Iraq. Thanks very much, Ivan.
WATSON: You're welcome, Steve.
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