BAGHDAD — Iraq's prime minister said Tuesday that a U.S.-Iraqi security pact, though imperfect, was a step toward his country's full sovereignty. He also promised Iraq won't be used for cross-border attacks — a reassurance to Iran and Syria which view the American military presence here as a threat.
Also Tuesday, Iraq announced it will hold provincial elections on Jan. 31 for the first time since 2005, when the country was deep in chaos.
The elections signal a step forward for national reconciliation because Sunni Arabs who boycotted the polls last time are now to take part. And pending a parliament vote Nov. 24, they could do so with a clear timetable for a U.S. withdrawal in place.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki delivered his comments in a nationally televised address designed to rally domestic support ahead of the parliament vote on the security deal. The deal would keep U.S. forces in Iraq through 2011 but place them under strict Iraqi oversight — the first since the U.S.-led invasion five years ago.
Reservations about the agreement
Al-Maliki said that while the government still has "reservations" about the agreement, it was a "solid prelude to the restoration of Iraq's full sovereignty in three years' time."
He didn't specify those concerns, but many Iraqis have mixed feelings about the presence of 150,000 American soldiers on their soil. They want the troops' departure but recognize that their institutions, particularly the security forces, may be too fragile yet to stand on their own.
The agreement requires U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009 and the whole country by Jan. 1, 2012. It also places U.S. military operations and movement under stringent Iraqi control, and gives Iraq limited judicial powers over American soldiers and defense contractors in 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 U.N. mandate for the American troop presence expires Dec. 31.
Al-Maliki, who had appealed directly to U.S. President George W. Bush during difficult negotiations on the pact, also sought to dampen conspiracy theories on U.S. intentions in oil-rich Mideast, saying: "I assure you that there are no secret clauses or annexes in the agreement, nor permanent (U.S.) military bases in Iraq."
He also pledged Iraq "will never be a conduit or a staging ground for an attack on any other nation."
The promise, noted in the security deal, that Iraq would not serve as a launching pad for assaults on neighbors — particularly U.S. adversaries Iran and Syria — is vital to its success. Both countries had slammed the deal and Iraq, whose Shiite-led government has close ties to Iran, can ill-afford their hostility.
Al-Maliki's pro-pact campaign
Al-Maliki also embarked on a pro-pact campaign, dispatching envoys to explain it in the Emirates, Iran and Turkey. Akram al-Hakim, minister of state for reconciliation affairs, led the delegation.
Iran was surprisingly receptive to the pact after the Iraqi Cabinet approved it on Sunday, possibly reflecting appreciation for the clear timetable for American withdrawal as well as a desire to improve relations with Washington ahead of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration. Obama has pledged to start pulling out troops immediately after taking office on Jan. 20.
Analyst: U.S. presence could benefit Iran
Michael Hanna, an analyst at The Century Foundation, a New York-based research center, said that a continuing but finite presence of U.S. troops in Iraq could benefit Iran because it provides "retaliatory options" as Tehran pursues a nuclear program opposed by the West.
"At the moment, having the Americans just next door is, paradoxically, the greatest insurance against an U.S. attack," Hanna wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "In the near-term, a constrained U.S. troop presence would seem to be in their (Iranian) best interests."
Washington has accused Iran of providing resources and training to militants in Iraq, though security has improved dramatically since 2007 because of the U.S. troop "surge," a Sunni Arab revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a cease-fire by a powerful Shiite militia.
Iraq's top Shiite cleric, who stays out of the political fray but can influence the government because he is revered by most of the country's Shiites, said the U.S.-Iraqi security pact would only be viable if Iraq's main political groups backed it.
The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani quoted him as saying he wanted the pact to secure Iraqi stability and sovereignty and "win the support of all Iraqis."
Tuesday's announcement by government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh that Iraq will hold long-awaited provincial elections Jan. 31 injected new hope the vote will foster national reconciliation by allowing the main ethnic and religious groups to have a balanced stake in the country's welfare.
The Sunni Arab community skipped the provincial elections in January 2005, leaving the Kurds and Shiites — who together make up about 80 percent of the population — in control of local councils in areas where the Sunnis are a majority or a large minority. That only deepened the sense of alienation among Sunni Arabs who dominated Iraq until the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
But the elections will offer no solution to another flashpoint in Iraq. There will be no vote in Tamim province, which includes the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Lawmakers had decided to postpone a decision on how to resolve a power-sharing dispute over Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders believe it should be incorporated into their semi-autonomous region in the north, which is also not participating in the vote.
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