BAGHDAD - Iraq's Cabinet asked for changes in a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement yesterday, once more casting doubt on the document's speedy passage with less than three months to go before the U.N. mandate authorizing the presence of American troops in Iraq expires.
The first Cabinet session reviewing the document revealed what a divisive issue the security agreement has become. The country's Kurdish bloc is publicly backing the current accord, while Shiite Muslim and Sunni Arab allies of the United States remain wary of endorsing the draft, which had been described by both Americans and Iraqis as in its final form.
The Iraqi side once more called for a new round of negotiations.
"The Council of Ministers has unanimously agreed that there are necessary amendments which need to be made to the current draft in order to raise the agreement to a nationally acceptable level," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.
The slow pace means an agreement might not be reached before the U.S. presidential election in two weeks and Iraqi and U.S. negotiators ultimately might forgo a long-term security agreement in favor of a more temporary arrangement.
One Iraqi government official who attended the session said the Cabinet would start debating the suggestions Sunday.
He described the new objections as proof that the main factions in the government, particularly Shiite, are reluctant to risk their political future on an agreement that has been assailed by Iran and radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a rival to the ruling Shiite coalition.
"These are diversionary tactics. We've gone through this before, and now we are back to square one," the official said. "Definitely we are running out of time."
The official heaped blame on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for failing to put his weight behind the draft. For his part, the prime minister said a decision on the agreement does not belong to him but to the government. Al-Maliki told Kuwaiti journalists last week that he was not sure when the deal would go forward.
The Cabinet session crushed lingering hopes that meetings last week involving al-Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and other top leaders might marshal the political will to shepherd the agreement through parliament.
Expectations were already low after al-Maliki's political coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), called for changes in the document's wording Saturday.
The official who attended yesterday's Cabinet meeting said some ministers called for the agreement to be put before a national referendum. Ministers demanded alterations to the language regarding immunity for U.S. soldiers from prosecution in Iraqi courts and calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011.
The language regarding immunity, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by The Los Angeles Times, provides U.S. military and government personnel protection from prosecution when they are on their bases or on missions.