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Iraq cleric raps 'eternal slavery'

BAGHDAD: An Iraqi Shi'ite cleric yesterday denounced as "eternal slavery" a proposed security deal between Baghdad and Washington that outlines the long-term military presence of American forces in the country.

"The pact would be an eternal slavery for Iraq. It is against the constitution," said Shaikh Asad Al Nasri, a member of the movement led by radical anti-American cleric Moqtada Al Sadr.

"The government has no right to sign the pact which has been rejected by every political party," he told worshippers at prayer in the holy town of Kufa, adding that the no Iraqi would be able to agree to it.

US President George W Bush and Iraqi premier Nuri Al Maliki agreed in principle last November to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) by the end of July.

Bush is also seeking approval for a spy-powers bill that has drawn heavy fire on civil liberties grounds and new Iraq war funding.

"It's vital that our intelligence community has the ability to learn who the terrorists are talking to, what they are saying, and what they are planning," Bush said in a hastily announced statement at the White House.

The spending bill would provide $162 billion (BD61bn) for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, fuelling both for months after his successor takes over in January, without attaching a withdrawal timetable sought by Iraq war opponents.

"This legislation gives our troops the funds they need to prevail without tying the hands of our commanders in the field or imposing artificial timetables for withdrawal," said Bush.

Meanwhile, Sadr supporters accused the security forces of heavy-handed action in a crackdown in the southern city of Amara, calling it a "clear provocation".

Adnan Al Selawi, head of the Sadr movement's office in Amara, 300km southeast of Baghdad, said the Shi'ite cleric's supporters had hoped the security sweep in the city, which began on Thursday, would be professional.

"But unfortunately we found many breaches and violations," he said, accusing security forces of insulting and harassing civilians, random shooting and beating people.

The crackdown by the Iraqi army and police, backed by US forces, is the latest phase in Maliki's drive to impose law and order throughout Iraq.

Maliki has thrown down the gauntlet to Sadr by sending forces into strongholds of his Mahdi Army militia in the southern city of Basra, Baghdad and now Amara.

The head of the security committee for surrounding Maysan province, Latif Al Tamimi, said just 17 people had been detained, and two had since been released.

However, Selawi said many people had been arrested, including about 200 members of the police force in Maysan, who he said authorities suspected of being Sadr supporters.

Nevertheless, he said he had told members of the Mahdi Army militia not to respond with violence. "If there is a violation, we must confront this with a smile," he said.

"Five officials from the provincial council who represent the Sadr movement have been arrested for aiding the militia," Maysan police spokesman Mehdi Al Asadi said. He said four policemen were also arrested in the operation.

Two Kurdish rebels were killed yesterday in fighting with Turkish soldiers in the Kurdish-populated east of the country, a security source said.

The fighting erupted in a mountainous region near Catak in Van province when soldiers on a security sweep came across Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebels, said the source.



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