Iran softens resistance to U.S.-Iraq troop pact

BAGHDAD — Iran on Monday softened its resistance to a pact that calls for withdrawing American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, a shift that could make it easier for Iraq's ruling Shiite Muslim government to secure parliamentary approval. U.S. officials said they doubted that Tehran had altered its stance, however.

Reports from Iran's state news agency called an Iraqi Cabinet vote that advanced the security compact a "victory for the ruling party and its Kurdish partners," referring to the Shiite lawmakers who supported the agreement.

The Web site of Iran's state television quoted Iranian judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi as saying, "We hope the outcome of (the deal) will be in favor of Islam and Iraqi sovereignty, security and stability in the region.

"We hope that the American forces will withdraw completely from Iraq within the schedule limited for them."

Those reports marked a change in tone from Iran's take on Iraqi negotiations with the U.S. earlier this year, when Iran had leaned on Shiite lawmakers to block the deal.

Shahroudi is a case in point. In October, he was quoted on Iranian television as saying, "The pact will never serve the interests of the Iraqi government and nation."

In Washington, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that under the agreement all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. That goes farther than President-elect Barack Obama's call for about 30,000 service members to remain in Iraq after combat troops leave.

"It is my understanding that the 2011 date (means) all American forces" must be out by then, Mullen said at a briefing. He stressed, however, that he still supports a "conditions-based" drawdown.

Mullen said that it would take the United States two to three years to withdraw from Iraq completely. American military officials estimate that they can draw down two brigades a month. There are currently 14 brigade combat teams in Iraq and about 50 brigade combat team-sized support teams. In all, there are roughly 150,000 U.S. service members in Iraq.

Iraq's Shiite parties, led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, carried the withdrawal agreement through the Cabinet on Sunday, winning 27 of 28 votes among the ministers who attended Sunday's session.

American officials were skeptical that Iran had changed its stand on the pact.

"There has been no relenting whatsoever in the Iranian position," a senior U.S. government official said in Baghdad. "They are dead set against the success of this agreement."

The American official, who couldn't be identified under the rules of the U.S. Embassy briefing, speculated that Iran recognized Shiite support for the deal and chose to adjust its strategy.

Iraqi and American leaders touted the compact at a ceremony Monday at which U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari signed two agreements, one defining the terms of the American withdrawal and another laying out relations between the countries on a slate of nonsecurity issues such as trade and technology.

"This is something that would be the ambition of any country in the world, to have such distinguished relations with the United States," Zebari said.

The agreements are contingent on approval from Iraq's parliament, where a Sunni Muslim political bloc is split on the security plan and lawmakers linked to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr oppose it. Parliament received the agreement Monday, and is scheduled to begin debating it this week.

American officials were hopeful that the agreement would pass parliament. Crocker said the political milestone recognized "the superlative security gains of the last two years."

The senior U.S. government official cautioned, however, that "there is no alternative" if the security agreement fails in parliament.

It would replace a United Nations mandate that provides the legal framework for American forces — and foreign security contractors brought here under U.S. auspices — to operate in Iraq. That mandate is set to expire Dec. 31.

The U.S. official said the Iraqis weren't interested in renewing that mandate. It offers them no authority over American forces or contractors, whereas the accord before Iraq's parliament establishes that Iraq must approve U.S. military operations and raids.

(Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee. Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article from Washington.)


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