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Iraqi Cabinet approves U.S. troops agreement

Iraq's Cabinet on Sunday approved a security pact with the United States that will allow American forces to stay in Iraq for three years after their U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
Image: In this image released by the Iraqi government, Iraq's Cabinet votes to approve a security pact with the United States
The approval followed months of difficult negotiations and, pending parliamentary approval, will remove a major point of contention between the two allies.  Iraqi Government / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraq's Cabinet overwhelmingly approved a security pact with the United States after a swift debate on Sunday following tough negotiations about how long and under what conditions American troops will stay in the country they occupied in 2003.

The deal needs parliamentary approval, and lawmakers could vote on it as soon as Nov. 24. For Iraqis, the breakthrough was bittersweet because they won concessions from the Americans but must still accept the presence of U.S. troops on their soil for three more years.

"It's the best possible, available option," said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. He was referring to the Iraqi paradox: the country yearns for full sovereignty and control over its security, but needs American support and cooperation to achieve that goal.

Al-Dabbagh described the pact as an "agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops." Washington welcomed the Cabinet's approval.

"While the process is not yet complete, we remain hopeful and confident we'll soon have an agreement that serves both the people of Iraq and the United States well and sends a signal to the region and the world that both our governments are committed to a stable, secure and democratic Iraq," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House's National Security Council.

New administration to honor agreement
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office in January, has said he would pull U.S. troops out of Iraq within 16 months of moving into the White House. Al-Dabbagh said Iraq's government has received U.S. assurances that the Obama administration would honor the agreement, and pointed out that each side has the right to repeal it after giving a one year's notice.

Iraq's neighbors and U.S. adversaries, Iran and Syria, have opposed the pact, arguing that the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces offers the best option for Iraq.

Baghdad sought to allay their fears, amending the document to prohibit the Americans from using Iraqi territory to attack neighboring nations.

The Cabinet's decision was made amid violence, despite a dramatic improvement in security over the past year. Fresh attacks underlined doubts about whether Iraq's nascent security forces can stand on their own without U.S. military support and training.

Violence claims lives
Hours after the Cabinet vote, seven people died and seven others were wounded in a suicide car bombing at a police checkpoint in Diyala, a turbulent province northeast of Baghdad, according to police Col. Ahmed Khalifa, chief of Jalula police station.

The U.S. 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 Sunday, a roadside bomb killed three people and wounded seven in northern Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said.

Al-Dabbagh said all but one of 28 Cabinet ministers present in Sunday's meeting, in addition to al-Maliki, voted for the pact. The sole vote of dissent came from Minister of Women's Affairs Nawal al-Samaraie, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni Arab party.

Nationwide referendum preferred
She said she voted against the pact because she preferred that it be put to a nationwide referendum. She also wanted the U.S. military to free Sunni security detainees not charged with specific crimes, rather than hand them to Iraqi authorities as provided by the agreement.

The Cabinet vote followed Washington's decision last week to grant a request by al-Maliki for final amendments.

Khalid al-Attiyah, parliament's deputy speaker, said the changes removed ambiguous language that could allow U.S. forces to opt out of a timeline for their withdrawal from Iraqi cities by June 30 and from the country by Jan. 1, 2012. The changes also tightened Iraq's control over security raids and the arrest of Iraqis.

The agreement gives Iraq the right to try U.S. soldiers and defense contractors in the case of serious crimes committed off-duty and off-base.

Al-Attiyah said he expected parliament to vote on the agreement by Nov. 24. If parliament approves the deal, President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies must ratify it.

Ensuring a quorum for vote
Parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani canceled all leave for lawmakers and suspended foreign and out-of-town visits to ensure a quorum for the security pact vote, al-Attiyah said.

Iraq's parliament is due to go into recess at the end of the month or in early December because of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, when many lawmakers travel to Saudi Arabia on the annual pilgrimage.

There is a good chance that parliament will pass the agreement with a large majority since the parties that make up al-Maliki's coalition government dominate the legislature.

Barring unforeseen developments, the document should receive the support of the 85 lawmakers of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, the 54 Kurdish lawmakers and most of the 44 lawmakers in the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni Arab bloc.

Dissenting votes expected
Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands the loyalty of 30 lawmakers, are certain to cast dissenting votes in parliament.

"This agreement hands Iraq over (to the United States) on a golden platter and for an indefinite period," said Ahmed al-Massoudi, spokesman for the Sadrist lawmakers.

Al-Sadr, whose militiamen battled U.S. forces in the past, threatened to resume attacks on U.S. forces if they don't immediately withdraw from Iraq. He called for a mass prayer and protest in a central Baghdad square on Friday.

The Cabinet vote came a day after Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, indicated he would not object to the pact if it passes by a comfortable majority in parliament.