Iraqi Cabinet approves US pact
Troops could stay three more years; Agreement needs Parliament vote
BAGHDAD - After months of painstaking negotiations between Baghdad and Washington, the Iraqi Cabinet yesterday approved a bilateral agreement allowing US troops to remain in Iraq for three more years.
The accord still needs approval by Iraq's Parliament, but the Cabinet vote indicated that most major Iraqi parties supported it. An Iraqi government spokesman portrayed the pact as closing the book on the occupation that began with the US-led invasion in 2003.
"The total withdrawal will be completed by Dec. 31, 2011. This is not governed by circumstances on the ground," the spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, told Iraqi reporters, pointedly rejecting the more conditional language that the US government had earlier sought in the accord.
American officials have pointed out that there is nothing stopping the Iraqi government from asking some US troops to stay on beyond 2011. The Iraqi military is years away from being able to defend the country from external attack, according to both US and Iraqi officials.
Still, there is no doubt that the accord, if passed by Parliament, will sharply reduce the US military's power in Iraq. American soldiers will be required to seek warrants from Iraqi courts to make arrests, and to hand over suspects to Iraqi authorities. US troops will have to leave their combat outposts in Iraqi cities by mid-2009, withdrawing to bases.
The US government has lobbied hard for the status-of-forces agreement, which would replace a United Nations mandate authorizing the US presence that expires Dec. 31. Without some legal authority from Iraq or the United Nations, the 150,000 US forces would have to end their operations in Iraq in a few weeks' time, military officials said.
"We welcome the Cabinet's approval of the agreement today," the US Embassy said in a statement. "This is an important and positive step."
The Iraqi spokesman noted his government could cancel the agreement if its own forces became capable of controlling security at an earlier point.
"That matches the vision of US President-elect Barack Obama," Dabbagh said, referring to the Democrat's plan to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months. "The Iraqi side would not mind [withdrawal] when the readiness of its forces is achieved."
While the Cabinet vote indicated that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had rounded up the support of most of Iraq's major parties, final passage of the accord is not guaranteed, politicians said.
One issue is timing: The notoriously slow-moving Iraqi Parliament is scheduled to adjourn Nov. 25 for a three-week break to allow lawmakers to make the hajj pilgrimage.
"We have a limited window of time," warned Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister.
Another wild card is the position of the Sunni parties. The Shi'ite-led government has sought consensus so the treaty would not become a political issue before provincial elections scheduled for late January.
"There will be a problem if the Sunni bloc decides to abstain. That is quite critical," said Haidar al-Abadi, a prominent member of the prime minister's Dawa party.
In addition to parliamentary approval, the agreement needs the go-ahead from Iraq's presidential council. The Sunni representative on that council, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, has called for a national referendum on the pact.
Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the Tawafuk bloc that includes most Sunni parties, said in an interview that he expected its members to vote for the agreement.
"Hashimi has disagreements with some small points, but that will not make him reject it," he said.
The US government began negotiating the agreement in March, and had hoped it would be signed by the summer. But the talks dragged on. Iraq won some major concessions, including the establishment of the 2011 withdrawal date instead of vaguer language favored by the Bush administration. It also rejected long-term US military bases on its soil.
Still, the accord was attacked by Iraqi politicians when a near-final draft was distributed last month. Some explained their turnabout this week by noting that the US government had accepted last-minute changes demanded by the Iraqi Cabinet.
The changes were mostly minor, according to people close to the negotiations, but may have allowed Iraqi politicians to portray themselves as driving a tough bargain.
Lawmakers are wary of appearing too pro-American, and some faced pressure from Iran, which strongly opposes the accord, Iraqi officials and analysts said.
Even as Iraqi leaders moved forward on the security agreement, the violence afflicting the country continued, the Associated Press reported.
Hours after the Cabinet vote, seven people died and seven were wounded in a suicide car bombing at a police checkpoint in Diyala, a turbulent province northeast of Baghdad, according to police Colonel Ahmed Khalifa, chief of the Jalula police.
The US military said the attack in Jalula occurred at a police station and that four police and six civilians died.
There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy in the reports.
Earlier yesterday, a roadside bomb killed three people and wounded seven in northern Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said.