BAGHDAD — Iraq's cabinet on Sunday approved a security pact that sets a timetable for the nearly complete withdrawal of American forces within three years, but the agreement faces an uncertain outlook in Iraq's parliament.
The largest Sunni party in Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party, wants the agreement to go to a nationwide referendum. Its affiliated parties complain that their efforts to amend the plan to require the release of detainees and to provide compensation for war victims were ignored by lawmakers who shaped the pact.
Followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr, meanwhile, view the agreement as an affirmation of the American occupation and oppose it outright.
Their dissent colors broad political momentum Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki built through the weekend after he reportedly gained new concessions from the American government. It won support from 27 of the 28 cabinet members. Nine members did not vote because they were traveling, a cabinet minister said.
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Maliki declared his support for the agreement Friday, and helped persuade Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani to give it the green light on Saturday. Sistani is Iraq's leading religious authority and does not share Sadr's view of the security agreement.
Representatives of Maliki's Dawa party framed the deal as a means to end America's occupation of Iraq while phasing out the assistance coalition forces provide.
It strengthens Iraqi controls over U.S. forces by:
_ Requiring the U.S. to get Iraqi consent before searching homes.
_ Giving Iraqis authority over the international zone that houses the centers of American power in Baghdad.
_ Enabling Iraqis to search U.S. cargo.
_ Prohibiting Americans from conducting raids in other countries from Iraqi soil.
_ Eliminating the judicial immunity that applies to foreign contractors and U.S. soldiers working in Iraq under the occupation's current mandate.
If it passes parliament, the agreement would replace a United Nations mandate that allows American forces to operate in Iraq. That mandate expires Dec. 31.
American officials have lobbied to pass the pact ahead of the UN deadline. They praised the cabinet vote.
"We welcome the cabinet's approval of the agreement today. This is an important and positive step," a U.S. embassy spokesperson said.
Several Iraqi officials said they were assured that President-elect Barack Obama would honor the agreement. During his campaign, Obama pledged to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq over his first 16 months in office, removing them by the summer of 2010.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh said it would take a year for either side to cancel the agreement because of the logistics of a withdrawal.
Maliki's delegates stressed that the agreement leaves no room to extend the American presence in Iraq beyond Dec. 31, 2011. It calls on American units to pull out of Iraqi cities by June 2009.
"This timetable is final and fixed," Dabbagh said.
That timeline isn't fast enough for Sadr and his supporters.
In a statement read by his representative on Friday he called for splinter groups to rejoin "Promised Day Brigade," dedicated to fighting U.S. forces if the Iraqi government signs a security agreement with the United States.
"What the Iraqi government has done is a catastrophe because it's giving an authorization that we don't know when it will end," said Sadr spokesman Salah al Obeidi.
Despite the approval by the Iraqi cabinet, a battle awaits inside the 275-member parliament.
Hadi al Ameri, a leading Shiite lawmaker, said the only way the agreement could pass was with consensus among the major political blocs.
But Iraqi Sunnis are divided on what to do.
Vice President Tariq al Hashimi's party on Sunday was still calling to put the agreement before voters as a referendum. Nawal al Sammaraie, a member of his party and a state minister for women's affairs, was the only cabinet minister who voted against the security pact.
"We are afraid that even if the agreement passes in parliament it could be (opposed) by Tariq al Hashimi," al Ameri said, speaking for a Shiite coalition called the United Iraqi Alliance. "The Americans put the ball in our field today. We gave it a strong kick and now the ball is in the field of the Americans and the Sunnis. We are waiting to see what they do."
The passage of the agreement by the cabinet with the approval of the Shiite alliance rebutted accusations that Shiite officials have caved to Iranian pressures by purposely stalling negotiations with the American government, he said. But without Sunni agreement they may go back to "square one."
"We don't love the Americans. This is not for love of the presence of the American soldiers, we want to get rid of the Americans today, not tomorrow," he said. "But how to get rid of 150,000 American soldiers on this land? We believe this agreement is one of the ways to get rid of the Americans."
After nine months of intense negotiations, the focus turns to the Sunni Arabs who've largely remained in the background as Shiite officials criticized the proposed security agreement. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the Sunni bloc of parties, is splintered.
Rasheed al Aazawy, a Sunni lawmaker, waved his hands in dismissal when asked if the law could pass the parliament by the end of the year. Hashimi, the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Sunni vice president, called for a referendum on the agreement this month. The party also unsuccessfully demanded a line within the agreement for compensation of Iraqi victims of the Iraq war, Aazawy said.
"What the members of the government cannot do members of parliament can because they have greater freedom," he said. "It will be a bitter struggle inside the parliament. I do not believe that it will pass this year."
Other politicians have concerns about the agreement's implementation, but they expect it to pass.
"It seemed the U.S. had its conditions and the Iraqis were not very united. So they got this, which is not the best deal, but it's the best they could get," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament.
"I support the spirit of the agreement to fix the timetable for the withdrawal of the American troops," said Saleh al Mutlaq, a Sunni lawmaker who wants to see stronger language to provide reconciliation for Iraqis who have suffered during the war.
Elsewhere in Iraq, an election official in Basra confirmed that a group seeking to create a federalist state for the southern city had submitted enough petitions to put an initiative before voters that take power from Iraq's central government and give it to a regional one. An announcement is expected later this week to declare how the vote will take place.
A suicide bomber killed 15 people and injured 20 in an attack on a police checkpoint in Jalawla northeast of Baghdad in the Diyala province. Seven of the victims were police officers.
Three people were killed in a roadside bomb explosion in northeast Baghdad Sunday morning that targeted a Sunni group that has cooperated with the Iraqi government. Two of the people who died were members of the Sunni group.
Ashton is a reporter for the Modesto Bee. McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Diyala, who does not wish to be named because of security concerns, contributed to this report.
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