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Maliki backs troop deal, just not avidly

Susman is a Times staff writer.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki went on national television Tuesday to defend a divisive pact giving U.S. forces three more years on the ground in his nation as opponents reacted coolly to the plan, which is expected to go before parliament today.

American and Iraqi officials say they are optimistic that the agreement will win approval, but lawmakers from various factions have made it clear that they need convincing. Maliki described the agreement in less than effusive terms, portraying it as the best way for Iraq to unshackle itself from the United Nations mandate governing the U.S. presence.

That mandate, which has given American forces great autonomy since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, expires Dec. 31. The new deal, which would replace it, greatly reduces U.S. troops’ freedom of action.

Nonetheless, lawmakers loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, who wants the 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to leave immediately, vowed to fight passage of the accord. Others, including some legislators from parliament’s main Sunni Arab bloc, called Tuesday for more U.S. concessions, particularly on the issue of Iraqi detainees held by American forces.

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“We still have reservations,” said Omar Abdul Sattar Karbouly, a lawmaker from the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the main Sunni bloc in parliament. Karbouly said his group’s demands, including the release of Iraqis held in U.S. custody, “were ignored by the government. But it’s too early to say what will happen. We still have demands.”

Mahdi Hafed, a member of the Iraqi National List bloc of parliament, said his nationalist group had doubts about the pact. Hafed accused the Cabinet of pushing through the legislation too quickly and said the National List preferred an extension of the U.N. mandate for a year.

It is doubtful the pact’s opponents could vote it down in parliament. Maliki’s Shiite bloc and Kurdish parties, which back it, hold more than half the legislative seats. But Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a member of the Sunni bloc, is part of the three-man Presidency Council that must sign the bill into law if it passes, and he could veto the measure.

Even without a veto, trying to enforce the law without broad-based support, particularly from Sunni lawmakers, could intensify Iraq’s political unrest. And Maliki risks a backlash against his bloc in long-awaited provincial elections, which his Cabinet on Tuesday set for Jan. 31.

In his brief address to his nation, Maliki appealed for understanding of his decision after months of negotiations to sign off on the deal, which requires all American troops to leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. Combat troops are to withdraw from Iraqi cities, towns and village and move to distant bases by the end of next June.

“I will tell you, frankly, that we have some reservations over the agreement,” he said. “At the same time, we see it as a solid introduction to restoring Iraq’s sovereignty within three years.”

Maliki described the pact as better than extending the U.N. mandate. “Our difficult option was to proceed with negotiations with the United States,” Maliki said.

He and U.S. officials described months of laborious and tense talks leading to the accord.

“The Iraqi negotiators knew very well that they would be held accountable to the Iraqi people if they omitted the country’s supreme interests,” said Maliki, alluding to the concessions won from Washington.

They included a last-minute clause barring the United States from using Iraqi territory or airspace to attack other countries, and the removal of a clause that said both sides could extend the pact past three years if they agreed to it. The new version says only that the pact can be “amended” if both sides agree to do so, an alteration aimed at alleviating fears that the agreement was written with the idea of extension in mind.

Both changes point to the influence of neighboring countries on Maliki, who faced pressure from Syria and Iran in particular to reject any agreement with the U.S. The clause barring U.S. raids on neighboring states was inserted after American forces in Iraq crossed into Syria last month in search of suspected Al Qaeda members accused of funneling fighters into Iraq. Iran has portrayed the pact as a means of establishing a permanent U.S. presence in Iraq.

Iran continued to urge resistance Tuesday. The Iranian news agency IRNA quoted the country’s powerful parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, as saying the amendments to the pact were no reason to believe the United States would live up to the deal.

“The Iraqi parliament should still resist [it],” he said.

Iraqi leaders deny being swayed by outside pressure.

“When it comes to Iraqi interests, no one compromises to the Iranians. No one says because Iran wants this, we have to do it,” said Sami Askari, a Shiite lawmaker and close confidant of Maliki.

But analysts say lawmakers’ actions will be a sign of how true this is.

“The real issue is what SIIC will do in parliament,” said Vali Nasr, an expert on Middle East politics at Tufts University, referring to the largest Shiite political party. “That is the test of Iran’s influence.”

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ned Parker and Caesar Ahmed and a special correspondent contributed to this report.


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