Followers of anti-U.S.cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have held weekly protests against the deal, which critics fear will extend American military, economic and political domination of the country. They got support Friday from former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
“Americans persistently want to impose the agreement, which surely does not support the interests of Iraq and is harmful to the future of Iraq,” Rafsanjani said during a sermon in Tehran. “God willing, the Iraqi nation — with the awareness and leadership of clerics and the awareness of the Iraqi government — will not allow such a miserable event to happen.”
Rafsanjani heads two of Iran’s most powerful clerical governing bodies, the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari criticized Tehran for trying to interfere in the negotiations over the deal, which have stumbled over issues involving immunity and oversight for U.S. forces.
“The people who objected to the agreement right from the start were Hezbollah and the Mahdi Army and some officials in the Islamic Republic,” he told U.S.-funded Alhurra TV, referring to Iran and two Shiite groups it allegedly supports.
“They have expressed strong objections regarding this issue. But in Iraq, we say, and this is the government stance, that this is a sovereign decision,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview, which was held in New York.
Zebari also reiterated that Iraq has insisted as part of the deal that its territory would not be used “as a base or a launching pad for any aggressive actions against any neighboring country.”
The proposed agreement, which has been under negotiation for most of this year, would replace the U.N. mandate. Any agreement must be ratified by the Iraqi parliament.
The main sticking points include Iraqi objections to blanket immunity for U.S. troops and private contractors and demands for oversight over American forces during raids and detentions.
With time running out, a U.S. negotiating team led by top State Department adviser David Satterfield returned this week to Iraq to continue talks.
The deal faces fierce public opposition in Iraq led by the Sadrists, whose leader is believed to be in Iran.
Protesters emerged from Friday prayers in Baghdad’s main Shiite stronghold of Sadr City and the holy city of Kufa, chanting “No to the occupation” and “No to America” and raising pictures of al-Sadr and Iraqi flags.
Supporters believe the deal would help assure Iraq’s Arab neighbors that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government would not become a satellite of Shiite-dominated Iran as the American military role here fades.
U.S. officials have accused Tehran of supporting violence in Iraq. Iran has denied the allegations.
Al-Sadr’s decision to order his militia fighters to cease fire has been cited by the U.S. military as a key factor in a steep drop in violence nationwide, along with a U.S. troop buildup and a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq.
But attacks continue to strike U.S. forces as well as Iraqi civilians.
The U.S. military said a roadside bomb killed an American soldier Thursday during a combat patrol near Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad. It said the incident was under investigation.
At least 4,173 members of the U.S. military have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.