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Iraq security pact clears major hurdle

Parker and Hameed are Times staff writers.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has agreed to support a contentious security agreement with the United States and plans to urge his Cabinet to back the recently revised pact, two senior Shiite Muslim officials said Friday.

The move would be a huge step toward ratifying the deal, which sets out conditions for U.S. military conduct in Iraq as well as a timeline for troops’ withdrawal from the country by the end of 2011. It has encountered strong opposition from several Iraqi political parties and factions.

Maliki had declined to openly back the new security agreement. Close advisors said the prime minister changed his position after U.S. officials accepted two key conditions: the removal of any language from the text that might allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraqi cities past June 2009, and specifying that U.S. military personnel must request permission from the Iraqi government to search homes.

Maliki has reluctantly accepted that he could not expect any guarantee that a U.S. soldier suspected of wrongdoing during a mission would be tried in an Iraqi court, said confidant Sami Askari, a prominent Shiite lawmaker.

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“We don’t expect to have a perfect agreement,” Askari said in an interview. “But he can now go to the people and politicians and say, ‘Look, this is far better for Iraq to accept this than going to the other options.’ It is not perfect . . . but it is better than the extension” of the United Nations Security Council mandate that authorized the American military presence in Iraq until the end of this year.

In late October, a senior Bush administration official said that Maliki had started moving toward the U.S. position. On Sunday, a U.S. Embassy official said that he expected Maliki to push for the agreement because he believes the prime minister sees the United States as a guarantee against a military coup, a counterbalance to Iran and a bridge to relations with hostile Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia.

“He wants us here. The question for him is how can he be sure that the [security agreement] is going to pass,” the U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

If approved, it would give Iraq authority over all U.S. military operations in Iraq and would require American troops to leave Iraqi cities by the summer of 2009 and the country at the end of 2011. It also would define how the two countries would handle cases in which U.S. military personnel are accused of crimes in Iraq.

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Askari said Maliki plans to deliver a speech to explain to the Iraqi people why he thinks the pact should be approved.

Haidar Abadi, another senior member of parliament, said Maliki had sent the proposed agreement to senior officials in Syria and Egypt with a personal letter explaining why the deal served Iraq’s interests. The letter pledged that American troops would not launch attacks against neighboring countries, a reference at least in part to a U.S. raid last month on a Syrian border village where American officials believed a militant was hiding, Abadi said.

Despite Maliki’s backing, the proposed agreement still faces obstacles. Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a Sunni, insists that the text cannot be approved by parliament alone, but must be subject to a referendum.

Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a senior member of Hashimi’s party and a spokesman for his parliament bloc, said Maliki waited too long to support an agreement.

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“It was supposed to be referred to the council of representatives earlier, so the council would discuss it,” Jabouri said. “Yes, we want the referendum.”

Maliki’s allies say that if Hashimi and his Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni grouping in parliament, refuse to vote for the agreement, the pact will fail.

The prime minister decided to publicly support the accord after U.S. officials accepted most of the dozens of changes requested by the Iraqi government at the end of October, and then agreed to the two additional key changes in the last week, Askari said.

Until this month, he said, Maliki had declined to tell other Iraqi officials that he backed the agreement. But the prime minister told President Jalal Talabani and Vice Presidents Adel Abdul Mehdi and Tariq Hashimi that he supported the agreement after the Americans had accepted most of the last changes suggested by the Cabinet, Askari said.

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“He played carefully and cleverly. Until recently he did not say a clear ‘yes.’ When he talked about this agreement’s advantages and disadvantages . . . he never said, ‘I’m 100% behind it,’ ” Askari said. “Until he had a meeting . . . of the executive council when he met Tariq, Talabani and Abdul Mehdi , he said for the first time directly, ‘I’m supporting the agreement.’ ”

Maliki’s negotiating team and U.S. officials were meeting to review the text so that it could be presented to the Cabinet on Sunday and parliament on Monday, Askari said.

The agreement, if endorsed by the Cabinet, would then go through three readings in parliament before coming for a vote, which would take about a week, officials said.

The prime minister will also defend the agreement in a speech, Askari said. He added that the Kurds and ruling Shiite coalition were backing the agreement, but Hashimi had still not endorsed the deal.

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Abadi confirmed that Maliki had made his support of the agreement known since last week in meetings with officials and that he intended to rally support for the text in the next Cabinet meeting.

“I think he is going to say this is the best we can get,” Abadi said. “This is in the best interest of Iraq.”

Abadi warned that if the majority of Sunni politicians don’t sign on, the text might not make it out of the Cabinet.

“If the Sunni bloc won’t vote for it, why should they bring it to the parliament?” he said.

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The Shiites also face their own ambivalence on the agreement. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr had his followers read a letter from him at Friday prayers, calling on splinter groups from his Mahdi Army militia to join with his new elite force whose purpose is to fight U.S. forces.

An aide in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf said that if the agreement is approved, the majority of Sadr’s fighters, who have been demobilized and told to join a new religious education organization, could be asked to fight the Americans.

The most senior Shiite religious leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, had his office release a statement saying that he would take action if he found the pact violated Iraq’s sovereignty.

Maliki has long been considered enigmatic on his views of the agreement. U.S. officials had originally expected to reach a deal by the end of July.

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Some senior Iraqi officials have said privately that the prime minister was trying to avoid a decision on the pact and that he might even have thought he could make do without American forces if need be, or could simply seek a short-term extension of the U.N. mandate. They believed he feared risking his future on an agreement that could lead his political opponents to accuse him of selling Iraq off to foreigners.

Shiite officials previously have signaled that Maliki’s ruling coalition was willing to accept the agreement, only to have Maliki reopen the negotiations and ask for further concessions from the United States.

But Askari said the agreement could ultimately leave Maliki with a legacy as the man who evicted foreign troops from Iraq.

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ned.parker@latimes.com


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