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Iraqi lawmakers delay vote on U.S. security pact

Intense dealmaking among Iraq's political factions on Wednesday delayed a parliamentary vote on a security pact with the United States.
Iraq Security
U.S. soldiers stand guard during a ceremony for the opening of the headquarters of the local Awakening Council in the dominantly Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil, in Baghdad, Iraq, on Tuesday.Karim Kadim / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Intense dealmaking among Iraq's political factions on Wednesday delayed a parliamentary vote on a security pact with the United States that would allow American forces to stay through 2011 under tight Iraqi supervision.

The proposed deal meets a longtime Iraqi demand for a clear timetable for the exit of some 150,000 U.S. troops after years of war. But the Shiite-led government was struggling to meet the demands of political blocs, including a large group of Sunni Arab lawmakers, seeking concessions in return for supporting the agreement.

"There are complications, but we haven't lost hope yet," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told al-Arabiya television.

Lawmakers arrived at the parliament building for the planned vote in a session scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. But Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani later rescheduled the vote for 10 a.m. local time Thursday.

More dealmaking was expected to happen ahead of the rescheduled vote.

Fearing insurgent attacks, the Iraqi army and police deployed additional forces around the parliament building and the Green Zone entrance leading to it.

Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's ruling coalition appears to be assured of at least a slim majority in the 275-seat legislature. But the prime minister is seeking a bigger win that transcends Iraq's factionalism and sectarian divisions and reinforces the legitimacy of the pact, which could lead to full Iraqi sovereignty and close the bloody chapter that began with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

National referendum
Shiite Lawmaker Ridha Jawad Taqi said the government's Shiite and Kurdish blocs, which account for about 140 seats, or a slight majority in the legislature, were willing to hold a national referendum on the deal in 2009. That amounts to a concession to many Sunni Arab legislators, who have said they would support the security pact Wednesday if it was put to a nationwide vote next year.

So the deal, if approved in the parliamentary vote, could still be rescinded if it fails in the popular referendum.

A referendum would give the Iraqi people a chance to evaluate "whether their interests have been achieved," said Alaa Makki, a member of parliament's biggest Sunni Arab bloc, the 44-seat Iraqi Accordance Front.

A senior al-Maliki aide confirmed the concession by the Kurdish and Shiite blocs. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, he said a draft bill containing provisions for the referendum and a package of political reforms demanded by the Sunnis would be voted on separately in parliament.

Under the deal, U.S. forces will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 and the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012. Iraq will also have strict oversight over U.S. forces. The U.N. mandate that currently governs the conduct of American troops gives them freer rein, leading to Iraqi complaints that they are an occupying force intent on preserving U.S. interests in the Middle East.

In recent months, the U.S. military has increasingly been allowing Iraq's security forces to take the lead on operations such as routine security sweeps, but they continue to be the primary fighting force in joint operations.

The vote count will be as important as the overall result because the country's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has indicated that the deal would be acceptable only if it's passed by a big margin. He could scuttle the deal if he speaks against it.

If parliament approves the pact, it must be ratified by the three members of the Presidential Council, each of whom has veto power. Two members support the deal. The third, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, is a Sunni Arab who could support it if he believes that parliament's biggest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, has secured enough political gains in pre-vote dealmaking.

The Presidency Council, which also includes President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, has led a flurry of contacts with political leaders over the past week to fashion a compromise that would push through the pact.

A lot of the negotiations barely relate to the security pact because political groups are seizing the opportunity to trade their support for concessions on other issues.

In addition to the referendum issue, the Sunni Arabs and smaller groups in parliament have made their agreement to the pact conditional on a package of sweeping political reforms for a more equitable power-sharing formula between the country's Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni Arab communities.

Sunni Arabs want bigger representation in the Shiite-dominated security forces and the release of thousands of detainees, mostly Sunnis, held in U.S.-run facilities, but not charged with specific crimes. Under the security deal, detainees will be handed over to Iraqi authorities if arrest warrants are issued.

Al-Maliki says those demands shouldn't be linked to the pact and has pledged to free detainees who were not involved in the insurgency.

'Political gains'
Thirty lawmakers loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who demands an immediate American withdrawal, oppose the pact. One of them, Zaynib Karim, complained that other political groups were flipping their position on the security deal out of expedience.

"Some blocs that were rejecting the security pact have acquired political gains, making them change their stance," she said.

Violence has dropped sharply in Iraq since last year, but attacks continue and security was heightened throughout Baghdad ahead of the vote on the security pact. Late Wednesday morning, hours before the scheduled vote in parliament, a roadside bomb killed two civilians and wounded four others wounded in central Baghdad, Iraqi officials said.

Police and hospital officials said the blast targeted a minibus and those killed were passengers. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.