Iraqi Cabinet says US security pact needs changes

Iraq

A U.S soldier inspects a building after a bomb went off in Dora neighborhood, southwestern Baghdad,on Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008, wounding 4 Iraqi soldiers and 5 awakening council members, the police said.(AP Photo/Loay Hameed)

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's Cabinet decided Tuesday to ask the U.S. for changes to the draft agreement that would keep American troops here three more years, as key Shiite lawmakers warned the deal stands little chance of approval as it stands.

The decision, reached in a closed-door meeting that lasted nearly six hours, raised doubt that the agreement can be ratified before a new American president is elected next month.

Parliament must approve the draft before the current U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31 or no legal basis will exist for the U.S.-led military mission.

Such an outcome would force hard decisions in Baghdad and Washington on the future of the unpopular war.

Critics maintain the draft falls short of Iraqi demands for full control of their own country after nearly six years of U.S. occupation. Supporters insist Iraq still needs U.S. military and political support as it builds its security forces and governmental institutions.

Opposition, however, is divided, with different parties objecting to different parts of the agreement, which could make it difficult to win broad support for the entire document before the year end deadline.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his ministers reviewed details of the draft, hammered out in months of tortuous negotiations, and concluded that changes were needed "to raise the agreement to a nationally acceptable level," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.

Cabinet members will prepare a list of proposed changes to present to the Americans, al-Dabbagh said without giving a timeframe.

Government officials said al-Maliki wanted the proposed changes submitted Wednesday so the full Cabinet could consider them Sunday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.

The officials said the ministers of planning, defense and interior - which rely heavily on U.S. support - agreed to accept the draft without any changes. Others in the 37-member Cabinet raised various objections to the draft.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. Embassy and no indication whether the U.S. would agree to further changes. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said last Saturday that it would be difficult to reopen the negotiations.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration was waiting for a formal statement from the Iraqis before commenting.

Al-Maliki wants his coalition Cabinet of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to sign off on the draft before he sends it to parliament.

The prime minister, who is a Shiite, fears he could end up politically isolated if he pushes forward with the controversial agreement without solid political backing.

The agreement calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities by the end of June and withdraw from the country by Dec. 31, 2011, unless the government asks them to stay. It would also provide limited Iraqi jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers and contractors accused of major, premeditated crimes committed off post and off duty.

But much of the resistance has come from al-Maliki's fellow Shiites, who profited the most from the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.

On Sunday, al-Maliki's ruling Shiite alliance expressed reservations about the agreement and called for unspecified changes to the draft. Officials said some alliance members wanted to remove the government's authority to ask the Americans to stay beyond the withdrawal dates.

Al-Maliki's main partner in the alliance, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, maintains close ties to Iran, which strongly opposes the deal. The Supreme Council also works closely with the U.S., placing members in a difficult position between two hostile foreign powers.

Aides say al-Maliki wants an agreement but is also anxious for the 275-member parliament to approve it by a strong majority.

The 30 lawmakers loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are expected to vote against the deal. With solid opposition from the Sadrists, the prime minister needs strong backing from the Supreme Council, which also holds 30 seats, as well as his own Dawa Party, with 25 lawmakers.

So far, only the Kurdish parties, which control 54 seats, have expressed unequivocal support for the draft. Other parties either oppose the agreement or want to show their constituents that they accepted the deal only after resisting U.S. demands as long as possible.

Jalaleddin al-Saghir, an influential Supreme Council lawmaker, said the agreement stands no chance of parliamentary approval without changes. Another Supreme Council lawmaker, Humam Hmoudi, told reporters that amendments were necessary because of "national sensitivities."

"What they (Americans) gave with their right hand they took away with the left," said Hmoudi, chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs committee. "They brought new conditions and limits such as in the article about leaving the cities. They agreed to leave by next June but added that this will be connected to the security situation on the ground."

The main Sunni party has also refused to take a position, possibly because major Shiite parties haven't done so either. Many Sunnis prefer the Americans to stay as a protection against the Shiite-led government.

But Sunni politicians are deeply sensitive to being tagged as American puppets, recalling that Sunni tribes that supported Britain in the 1920 revolution are still shamed as traitors.

Sunni spokesman Salim Abdullah told Alhurra television that his group was concerned that a clause providing for U.S. help against "outlawed groups and remnants of the former regime" could be used against "innocent individuals" who served in the Saddam government.

U.S. and Iraqi officials believe Iraq's security forces still need American support to guarantee the security gains of the past year. Sunni and Shiite extremists have been battered but not defeated.

If the agreement fails to win approval, the two governments could ask the U.N. Security Council to extend the mandate. But the Iraqis don't like that option because they want to be freed from all U.N. restrictions, some of which have been in place since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Another could be to move U.S. troops into giant bases around the country and suspend all security operations pending a full withdrawal or another agreement.


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