Iraq Head, Top Cleric Back 2011 Exit by U.S.

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

BAGHDAD, Nov. 15 -- Iraq's prime minister and its most influential Shiite cleric have decided to support a security agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in the country until the end of 2011, sharply increasing its chances of passage in the Iraqi parliament, officials said Saturday.

Approval of the so-called status of forces agreement would be a cause for relief among Bush administration officials, who have grown increasingly concerned that U.S. forces would begin the new year with no legal basis to remain in Iraq. A U.N. mandate authorizing their presence is set to expire Dec. 31.

A delegation of Shiite lawmakers and government officials met Saturday with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to review the latest changes to the agreement, and the cleric "gave the Iraqi side the green light to sign it," according to an official in Sistani's office who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Sistani's views carry great weight among members of the Shiite parties that dominate Iraq's government.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his own support for the agreement and has received assurances from nearly all the parties in the cabinet that they would back it, said an adviser, Sami al-Askari.

A senior U.S. official in Baghdad, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, called Maliki's decision "an important and positive step."

Many Iraqi politicians have withheld public endorsement of the accord because of wariness about appearing too pro-American in the run-up to provincial elections expected in late January. In addition, Iran has been pressuring legislators to end the U.S. presence, according to American and Iraqi officials.

But the Iraqi government also managed to wrest some face-saving changes in the document in last-minute wrangling. The current draft sets a fixed, end-of-2011 deadline for the departure of U.S. forces, unlike earlier versions that said the U.S. military presence could be extended if Iraq requested it.

An aide to President-elect Barack Obama said Saturday that Obama supports the principle underlying the agreement but had not yet seen the specifics of the text. The aide recalled that, during the campaign, Obama said its completion before the end of the year was "critical . . . so that our troops have the protection they need."

The agreement would not affect Obama's pledge to withdraw most U.S. combat forces within 16 months of his inauguration. The document says nothing about when a drawdown would begin, the rate of departure or accomplishing it earlier than 2011.

The cabinet is expected to sign off on the bilateral accord Sunday or Monday, said Askari, a lawmaker who belongs to Maliki's Dawa party. Askari said the only holdout in the cabinet is the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group led by Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. His spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Askari said "the difficult part will be the parliament," which must also approve the agreement. But most of the parties represented in the cabinet are expected to urge their lawmakers to fall in line. Maliki's support for the accord was first reported by McClatchy Newspapers and the Los Angeles Times.

The agreement would transform the U.S. military role here, giving the Iraqi armed forces and court system a much greater say in security operations. U.S. officials have lobbied hard for the accord, saying that without some legal umbrella, the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq would have to start withdrawing at the end of this year.

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