Image: Iraqis watch parliament debate
Hadi Mizban  /  AP
Iraqis watch a televised debate in parliament on Saturday in Baghdad, Iraq.
updated 11/22/2008 9:20:19 PM ET 2008-11-23T02:20:19

Iraq's parliament will vote Wednesday on a proposed pact that would allow American troops to stay in Iraq for three more years. The government struggled to defend the deal, even warning that a hasty U.S. withdrawal could open the way for piracy in the Persian Gulf.

Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said a vote could be held earlier if the Shiite-led ruling coalition and other political groups reached an understanding, though a contentious, six-hour debate in the parliament Saturday suggested that would be hard to attain. Al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, rated chances that the deal will pass as "50-50."

That assessment was a harsh one for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who needs a wide margin of approval to ensure the deal's legitimacy. Failure to do that could deepen antagonism among Iraq's political factions, which are heavily based on ethnic and sectarian loyalties.

The security pact emerged from nine months of tough talks between U.S. and Iraqi negotiators, and the Iraqi Cabinet approved it a week ago on the grounds that it provided a clear timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces after more than five years of war.

But many Iraqis see the American presence as a smear on national sovereignty, even if some believe it is needed for now to combat a lingering insurgency. In the 275-seat parliament, the security pact has become a flash point for attacks on al-Maliki in what could be a campaign warm-up before provincial elections on Jan. 31 and general elections late in 2009.

Threats to security
Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi said the deal was necessary because the premature departure of U.S. troops would expose Iraqis to serious security threats such as al-Qaida in Iraq, but he also mentioned the danger of piracy in the Persian Gulf.

A hasty pullout "would allow what is happening in the Gulf of Aden ... to happen to us here," said al-Obeidi, noting the Iraqi navy does not have the resources to operate effectively at this time. The navy only has patrol boats.

Pirates have wreaked havoc on shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden over the past year, seizing dozens of ships off the coast of Somalia. Some have been released for ransom.

Iraq, which exports oil from its southern port of Basra, depends on oil for more than 90 percent of its national budget.

In Saturday's debate, several lawmakers said it made no sense to approve a deal with a U.S. administration that has less than two months in office and that a better option would be to negotiate a new pact once Barack Obama becomes president. Obama has said he would pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of moving into the White House — or May 2010.

Iraq and the United States say the pact's timetable for withdrawal can be sped up, but not delayed.

However, critics in parliament said they were entitled to months, not days, to study and debate the pact. They said negotiations were conducted in secrecy without their input. A lawmaker loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militiamen have fought U.S. troops in major uprisings, complained that the document was first crafted in English and later translated into Arabic.

"What is really bothering me is that we are always in a hurry, and we later regret what we do," said Maysoun Damlouji, a lawmaker from a 25-seat secularist bloc led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister.

A compromise
Even the pact's supporters acknowledge that it amounts to a compromise, rather than a victory, because U.S.-led foreign troops will stay longer on Iraqi soil. But they take what they describe as a pragmatic approach, saying it's a better alternative to extending a U.N. mandate, due to expire Dec. 31, that would allow American troops far more freedom to operate.

"The agreement has many negatives, but extending the mandate legitimizes the occupation and infringes on national sovereignty," said Hadi al-Amri, a lawmaker from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the senior Shiite partner in al-Maliki's coalition.

The proposed security pact requires the withdrawal of U.S. forces from all cities by June 30 and the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012. It places American military operations under strict Iraqi oversight.

It also would give Iraqi officials limited powers to prosecute U.S. soldiers and civilian Pentagon employees in the case of serious crimes committed off-base and off-duty. It would bar U.S. forces from using Iraqi territory to attack neighboring nations.

Al-Maliki has said he wanted the deal approved by consensus, and the country's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has indicated that the deal would be acceptable only if it wins passage in the legislature by a big majority.

If the accord passes, it will go to Iraq's president and his two deputies for ratification. Each has veto power.

During Saturday's parliament session, Khalid al-Attiyah, a senior Shiite lawmaker close to al-Maliki, said parliament should pass the deal as long as the government promises to revoke or change it if implementation is deemed harmful to Iraqis.

Article 30 of the agreement requires one year's advance notice if either side decides to terminate the pact.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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