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Iraqi lawmakers divided on US pact

Vote on security deal is postponed until Wednesday

Iraqis watched Parliament debate the US-Iraqi security pact on television in Baghdad yesterday. Earlier in the week, lawmakers loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr disrupted proceedings. Iraqis watched Parliament debate the US-Iraqi security pact on television in Baghdad yesterday. Earlier in the week, lawmakers loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr disrupted proceedings. (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)
By Christopher Torchia
Associated Press / November 23, 2008
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BAGHDAD - The Iraqi Parliament is to vote Wednesday on a pact that would allow American troops to stay in Iraq for three more years, but the government's hopes of winning by a wide margin to ensure the deal's legitimacy appeared to be fading.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his top ministers struggled yesterday to rally support for the pact, arguing that Iraqi security forces aren't ready to stand on their own. A United Nations mandate for the American troop presence expires Dec. 31, and US military operations would have to stop immediately without a new mandate or the legal cover of the pact being considered by Parliament.

The defense minister warned that losing the protection of the US Navy could even bring piracy to Persian Gulf waters like that plaguing international shipping off Somalia.

The vote originally was planned for tomorrow, but Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani announced the new date after six hours of speeches by lawmakers closed out last week's debate on the pact.

Mashhadani said the vote could be held earlier than Wednesday if the Shi'ite-led governing coalition and other political groups reached an understanding, but that seemed unlikely after days of contentious debate and even some scuffling among legislators.

The speaker, a Sunni Arab, rated chances for the pact's passage at "50-50."

That assessment was a harsh one for Maliki, who needs a broad consensus. Failure to achieve that could deepen antagonism among Iraq's political factions, which are heavily based on ethnic and sectarian loyalties.

The security pact emerged from nine months of tough talks between US and Iraqi negotiators, and the Iraqi Cabinet approved it a week ago on the grounds that it provided a clear timetable for the withdrawal of US forces after more than five years of war.

But many Iraqis see the American presence as a smear on national sovereignty, even if some believe it is needed for now to combat a lingering insurgency.

In the 275-seat Parliament, the security pact also has become a flashpoint for attacks on Maliki in what could be a campaign warm-up ahead of provincial elections Jan. 31 and general elections late next year.

Yesterday, several lawmakers said it made no sense to approve a deal with a US administration that has less than two months left in office and argued a better option would be to negotiate a new pact once Barack Obama becomes president.

Parliament is being asked only to approve or reject the agreement, and lawmakers cannot seek amendments. If the accord passes, it will go to President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies for ratification. Each has veto power.

Maliki has said he wants the deal approved by consensus, and the country's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has indicated the pact will be acceptable only if it wins passage in the Legislature by a big majority.

The proposed pact calls for American troops to pull out of Iraqi cities by next June 30 and to leave the country by Jan. 1, 2012. During his campaign, Obama said he would pull US combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of moving into the White House, which would be May 2010.

Iraq and the United States say the pact's timetable for withdrawal could be sped up, but not delayed. However, critics in Parliament said they should have been given months, not days, to study and debate the deal. They said negotiations were conducted in secrecy without their input.

"What is really bothering me is that we are always in a hurry, and we later regret what we do," said Maysoun Damlouji, a female lawmaker from a 25-seat secularist bloc led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister.

Even the pact's supporters acknowledge it amounts to a compromise by Iraq, because US-led foreign troops would stay longer on Iraqi soil. But they say it's a better alternative than extending the UN mandate, due to expire Dec. 31, that would allow American troops far more freedom to operate.

"The agreement has many negatives, but extending the mandate legitimizes the occupation and infringes on national sovereignty," said Hadi al-Amri, a lawmaker from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the senior Shi'ite partner in Maliki's coalition.

In addition to setting a US withdrawal timetable, the proposed pact would put American military operations under strict Iraqi oversight and would bar US forces from using Iraqi territory for attacks on neighboring nations.

The deal also would give Iraqi officials limited powers to prosecute US soldiers and civilian Pentagon employees in the case of serious crimes committed off-base and off-duty.

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