Thousands of mostly Shiite followers of the firebrand anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr gathered in Baghdad Friday to protest a security accord that would allow US troops to remain until 2011.
The crowds swarmed into central Baghdad's Firdoos Square, where a large statue of executed dictator Saddam Hussein was torn down by US troops a few weeks after the March 2003 invasion that toppled him.
The protestors hung an effigy of US President George W. Bush from the abstract statue that now stands in the center of the square.
A sign pinned to the effigy reflected the mood of the protestors, "The security agreement is shameful and humiliating."
The agreement, which was approved by the Iraqi cabinet on Sunday after nearly a year of hard-nosed negotiations, would govern the status of some 150,000 US troops when their UN mandate expires at the end of the year.
It would require all foreign forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns by the end of June 2009 and entirely from the war-torn country by the end of 2011.
It has drawn fire from Sadr's followers, who are against signing any agreement that would legitimise the US "occupation."
"No, No, to the agreement!" the crowds chanted beneath a huge banner with a picture of bloody cuffed hands and three keys labelled with American, Israeli, and British flags.
Other banners in English read "No for the security agreement that makes Iraq a prisoner and without sovereignty" and "Occupied forces must leave Iraq now."
Huge portraits of the young, black-turbaned Sadr glared down at the crowd from buildings lining Saadun street, a main thoroughfare leading to the square, as Iraqi army soldiers patrolled the rooftops and the edges of the protest.
"We are following the call of Moqtada al-Sadr to pray and demonstrate against the accord and against the occupation," said Nawfal Faraj, 36, a civil servant.
"This agreement is not clear. It allows the occupation forces to stay in Iraq."
Sheikh Talal al-Saadi, the imam of Baghdad's revered Kadhimiyah shrine and one of several clerics in the crowd, said he had heeded Sadr's call to "demonstrate to the world and to public opinion that Iraqis are against this humiliating agreement."
"The agreement allows the occupiers to stay three years in Iraq, while (president-elect Barack) Obama wants to withdraw them within 16 months. We want the Iraqi government to be patient and to wait for Obama's order," he said.
The agreement has been loudly debated on the floor of the Iraqi parliament, where the 30-member Sadrist bloc has sought to derail it with legislative manoeuvres, shouting and desk-pounding.
But the agreement -- which enjoys the support of the assembly's large Shiite and Kurdish blocs -- appeared likely to win a simple majority in the 275-member body, which is expected to vote on the agreement next week.