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WASHINGTON // Those Iraqis who have fled to Syria since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 generally have tried to maintain a low profile, out of fear of being detained by local authorities sent back home.

Which makes last week's protest in Saida Zainab curious.

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Some 2,000 Iraqis in the town outside Damascus staged a demonstration last Wednesday against the U.S.-Iraqi pact that will allow American troops to remain in Iraq until the end of 2011.

"We denounce the security agreement, a shameful and dishonorable agreement of American occupation," read a banner outside a shop in the mostly Shiite neighbourhood, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

"This disastrous accord puts Iraq under American control," read a placard carried by one demonstrator.

The report did not indicate whether officials in Damascus encouraged the protests, which echoed the Syrian line. Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal was sharply critical of the pact last month.

"We shouldn't give occupiers any reward or prize," Bilal told the Associated Press. " On the contrary, [the United States] should apologize for the damage they have caused."

The Syrian security aparatus keeps a close watch on the Iraqis, who are estimated to number 1.2 million in the country.

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