Iraqi Cabinet backs U.S. pact

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD - Iraq's Cabinet overwhelmingly approved a proposed security agreement yesterday that calls for a full withdrawal of American forces from the country by the end of 2011. The Cabinet's decision brings a final date for the departure of American troops a significant step closer after more than five years of war.

The proposed agreement must be approved by Iraq's parliament, in a vote scheduled to take place in a week. But leaders of some of the largest parliamentary blocs expressed confidence that with the backing of most Shiites and Kurds they had enough support to ensure its approval.

All but one of the 28 Cabinet ministers who were present at the 2 1/2 -hour session voted in favor of the pact. The near unanimity was a victory for the dominant Shiite party and its Kurdish partners.

Widespread Sunni opposition could doom the proposed agreement even if it has the votes to pass, as it would call into question whether there is a true national consensus, which Shiite leaders consider essential.

The proposed agreement, which took nearly a year to negotiate with the United States, not only sets a date for an American troop withdrawal, but it puts new restrictions on U.S. combat operations in Iraq starting Jan. 1 and requires an American military pullback from urban areas by June 30. Those hard dates reflect a significant concession by the outgoing Bush administration, which had wanted more flexibility and had been publicly averse to timetables.

Iraq also obtained jurisdiction in some cases over serious crimes committed by Americans who are off duty and not on bases.

In Washington, the White House welcomed the vote as "an important and positive step" and attributed the agreement to security improvements during the past year.

Throughout the negotiations, the Shiite parties and the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, under pressure from forces both within and outside of the country, had been trying to strike a balance between forging a viable agreement with the Americans that would guarantee Iraq's security and still stand firm against what many, including neighboring Iran, consider a hostile force that has occupied Iraq since the spring 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

"This vote shows that the Iraqis have figured out how to stand up for themselves, to Iran and to the U.S.," said Michael O'Hanlon, a specialist on Iraq at the Brookings Institution. "They will have stared in the face at the various options and concluded that none are ideal but the best for their security is an amount of ongoing but finite American cooperation, while also indicating their strong desire to run their own country on their own as soon as possible."

American officials, who had hoped to reach an agreement in midsummer, said the accord was the result of tough bargaining by the Iraqis. Speaking about the negotiations a few days ahead of the Cabinet vote, Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador, said that of the 100 requests for changes sought by the Iraqi side in recent weeks, "some were substantive, some were linguistic, some were stylistic. We looked at it all; we were as forthcoming as we could possibly be in responding."

Some Iraqi Shiite politicians said a significant factor in the Cabinet decision was the approval of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, who from the outset had laid down three conditions: full Iraqi sovereignty, transparency and majority support for the pact.

Sheik Dhia al-Din al-Fayyadh, a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, one of the largest Shiite parties, said that it was not until a delegation of Shiite leaders visited the ayatollah Saturday to assure him that those conditions were now met that he consented.

"We told him that we had got as close as we could possibly get," al-Fayyadh said. "We didn't get everything, but almost."

Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, said the agreement allows for the possibility that American forces could withdraw earlier if Iraqi forces are in a position to take over security responsibilities earlier. He said either side has the right to cancel the agreement with one year's notice.

Several political analysts suggested that Iranian opposition to the pact had softened because of the presidential election victory of Barack Obama. He has suggested a more diplomatic approach to Tehran and has described a withdrawal timetable from Iraq faster even than the one laid out in the security agreement, though he has recently qualified that stance.

"If George Bush's presidency were going to continue on through 2012, I think people would be a lot more concerned," said Karim Sadjadpour, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has studied Iran's role in Iraq. "Having this administration really lightens the blow for the Iranians." A section of the agreement barring the United States from attacking neighboring countries from Iraq might also have diminished Iranian resistance.

"We sent messages to neighboring countries to say, 'This is in our interest,' " al-Fayyadh said. "Specifically, we spoke to the Iranians and gave them guarantees that 'no one will use our country to attack you.' "

There was no immediate reaction from Tehran to news of the Cabinet vote.

In many ways, the vote can be seen as a calculated judgment by the Iraqi leaders as to who, for now, is best positioned to guarantee their political survival. It was the United States, after all, that helped usher many of the current Iraqi leaders into power and, given the improved but still fragile security situation in the country, many still see a necessity for an American military presence.

Combat operations are currently governed by a United Nations resolution that expires Dec. 31. If the pact is not approved and if the Security Council were to balk at extending the resolution, the U.S.-led foreign forces in Iraq would have to cease operations after the deadline.

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