Maliki tries to rally support for US security pact
Calls it a step to sovereignty; 1st provincial vote since 2005 slated
BAGHDAD - Iraq's prime minister delivered a nationally televised address yesterday to rally domestic support for a US-Iraqi security pact, calling it a step toward full sovereignty and assuring neighbors it will prevent cross-border attacks.
Hours earlier, Iraq said it will hold provincial elections Jan. 31 for the first time since 2005, when the country was in chaos. The vote will be another move for national reconciliation because the Sunni Arab minority that boycotted the polls last time is taking part.
The ballot also could come with a clear timetable for a US withdrawal in place, if Parliament approves the security pact in a vote scheduled for Nov. 24.
The agreement would keep US troops in Iraq through 2011 but put them under strict Iraqi oversight for the first time since they led an invasion five years ago. In his speech, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki described it as imperfect but necessary.
"I say to you with complete honesty that we have reservations about the agreement. But we at the same time see it as a solid prelude to the restoration of Iraq's full sovereignty in three years' time," Maliki said in the 10-minute speech.
Maliki also opened an international campaign of persuasion, dispatching envoys to explain the pact to the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Turkey.
Maliki did not specify his concerns, but many Iraqis have mixed feelings about the presence of 150,000 American soldiers on their soil. They yearn for the prompt departure of foreign forces and a restoration of national pride after years of bloodletting, but recognize that their institutions, particularly the security forces, may be too fragile to stand on their own.
The agreement requires American troops to leave Iraqi cities by next June 30 and all of the country by Jan. 1, 2012. It places US military operations and movement under stringent Iraqi control, and gives Iraq limited judicial powers over American soldiers and defense contractors in the case of serious crimes committed off-base and off-duty.
If approved by Parliament and ratified by the presidency, the pact would take effect when a UN mandate for the American troop presence expires Dec. 31.
Such is the suspicion about the long-term intentions of the United States in the oil-rich Middle East that Maliki sought to dampen conspiracy theories circulating among skeptics that he made a shadow deal allowing for an open-ended American presence.
"I assure you that there are no secret clauses or annexes in the agreement, nor permanent military bases in Iraq," the prime minister said. "Iraq will never be a conduit or a staging ground for an attack on any other nation."
The promise that Iraq would not serve as a launching pad for attacks on neighbors, particularly US adversaries Iran and Syria, was vital to the pact's success. Both those countries opposed the deal and Iraq, whose Shi'ite-led government has close ties to Iran, can ill-afford their hostility.
Iran was surprisingly receptive to the pact after the Iraqi Cabinet approved it Sunday, possibly reflecting appreciation for a definite timetable for American withdrawal as well as a desire to improve relations with Washington before President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration. Obama has pledged to start pulling out combat troops immediately after taking office on Jan. 20.
Michael Hanna, an analyst at the Century Foundation, a New York-based research center, said a continuing but finite presence of US troops in Iraq could benefit Iran because it provides "retaliatory options" as Tehran pursues a nuclear program despite opposition from the West.
"At the moment, having the Americans just next door is, paradoxically, the greatest insurance against a US attack or air strike and allows their closest Iraqi allies to consolidate their power internally," Hanna wrote in an e-mail.
Washington has accused Iran of providing resources and training to militants in Iraq, though security has improved dramatically since 2007 because of the US troop surge, a Sunni Arab revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq, and a cease-fire by a Shi'ite militia.