Iraqi Cabinet to vote on security pact with US
Deal would keep forces there for 3 more years
BAGHDAD - Iraq's Cabinet will vote today on a security pact with Washington that would keep US forces in the country for three more years, a major step in efforts to balance Iraqi demands for national sovereignty with the security concerns of the two allies.
In a bid to secure support for the agreement from the country's top Shi'ite cleric, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday dispatched two senior lawmakers to see Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, with a copy of the pact's final draft.
A senior official at Sistani's office said the cleric told the two legislators - Khalid al-Attiyah and Ali al-Adeeb - that the document represented "the best available option" for Iraq, signaling that he would not object to it if the Cabinet and later Parliament approve it.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Sistani indicated to Attiyah and Adeeb that he wanted the agreement to pass by a comfortable majority in the 275-seat Parliament.
Sistani commands enormous influence with Iraq's majority Shi'ites. The Iranian-born cleric does not speak to reporters, communicating his views through edicts. His public silence on a major policy decision is often taken to mean he has no objections.
Attiyah said Sistani had stressed the need for "national accord" over the agreement. Adeeb said.
The UN mandate covering the presence of US and other foreign forces in Iraq expires Dec. 31, and failure to pass the agreement would leave Iraq with little choice but to seek a renewal of the mandate.
A series of bombings yesterday pointed to the fragility of security gains in the past year. The violence also would probably strengthen the argument of the pact's proponents, including the interior and defense ministers, that there is still a need for US forces.
In Tal Afar, a suicide car bombing struck a commercial district, killing nine Iraqis and wounding 40, according to the US military. Iraqi police and hospital officials said seven people were killed and up to 32 were wounded. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
In Baghdad, a bomb in a parked car exploded near the National Theater in the mainly Shi'ite district of Karradah, killing at least five and wounding 23, according to police and hospital officials.
The US military, however, said initial reports indicated no deaths but 19 civilians wounded in the Baghdad bombing. It also said a suicide bomber in a vehicle in the northern city of Mosul injured 13 Iraqis yesterday, and that a US Marine died from wounds suffered in a roadside bombing west of Baghdad on Friday.
A close aide to Maliki and two Cabinet ministers said Iraqi and US negotiators have agreed on a final draft of the security pact and that it would be put to a vote in an emergency Cabinet meeting today.
The aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the pact stood "a good chance" of being passed by a two-thirds majority in the 37-member Cabinet and that the final draft was reached after "intense" contacts between the American and Iraqi sides.
If the Cabinet passes the draft agreement, the 275-seat Parliament could follow suit because the political blocs in Maliki's government dominate the Legislature. The agreement needs a simple majority to pass in Parliament.
The final step would be ratification of the deal by President Jalal Talabani and his two vice presidents.
Most political parties have been reluctant to state their position on the pact, fearing a voter backlash in key provincial and general elections in 2009 and the stigma of being seen as condoning the presence in Iraq of US forces who are viewed as an occupation army.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe described the final document as beneficial to the allied nations.
"We think this is a good document that serves both Iraqis and Americans well," he said.