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.
Negotiators had finished a draft agreement last month. But Maliki, whose party has only 15 seats in the 275-seat parliament, thought he could not get it through the legislature, according to aides and politicians who have discussed the matter with him.
Iraq then asked for several changes. When the U.S. government agreed to some, Maliki decided to support the accord, Askari said.
"He knows many other parties have to be persuaded to accept it. He wanted some time and the support of the U.S.," Askari said. "So now he is feeling in a good position, he can go forward."
Maliki is expected to address the nation early in the week about the agreement, Askari said.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said in an interview that "it looks like the atmosphere is much better" for approving the accord. But he warned that Iraq's notoriously lethargic parliament must move quickly, before it takes its scheduled break at month's end for the period of the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
"From now until the end of November is very critical," he said.
Opposition to the agreement in parliament is expected to come from the party of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which controls 30 of the 275 seats and has held frequent demonstrations against the pact.
In addition, parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a member of a small Sunni party, "is not full-hearted behind the agreement," Askari said. However, a source in Mashhadani's office said Saturday that the speaker had decided to back the accord. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The last-minute concessions made by U.S. authorities appear to be mainly symbolic, according to officials from both sides. U.S. officials did not give in on the Iraqis' main demand, which was that Iraq be given greater jurisdiction over American troops who commit major crimes while off duty.
Still, Iraqi politicians got enough minor changes to claim victory on an agreement that the country's defense and interior ministers have called vital to maintaining stability.
For example, the U.S. side agreed to scrap the language that would have allowed the American troops to stay beyond 2011 if Iraq requested, according to one official close to the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of their sensitivity.
But nothing prevents the Iraqis from seeking such an extension, according to congressional staffers briefed by U.S. officials last week in Washington.
The deputy parliament speaker, Khalid al-Attiya, said after leading a delegation to the city of Najaf to visit Sistani that "the Americans have responded positively on two important amendments. The first one is the Americans should withdraw from cities and suburbs on June 30, 2009, and the second one is that Americans should leave Iraq in 2011."
The Bush administration has always envisioned the accord as an executive agreement, which does not require congressional approval. Bush has consistently told Congress that the status of forces accord and an accompanying strategic framework agreement are "nonbinding" and would not tie the hands of a new president. But experts said its terms are enforceable under international law.
Obama has said that Congress should have a chance to review the document before it is signed by Bush, although he has stopped short of demands by some lawmakers that they should be given the same veto power accorded the Iraqi parliament.
The president-elect's policy calls for a "residual force" of an unspecified number of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq to fight al-Qaeda and protect U.S. diplomats and civilians. He has also conditioned ongoing U.S. training for the Iraqi security forces on progress toward political reconciliation in Iraq.
The U.S. military reported Saturday that two soldiers and a Marine had been killed. A statement said the two soldiers died in a noncombat-related helicopter accident in the northern city of Mosul. The Marine died of injuries from an improvised explosive device in the western province of Anbar.
Three car bombs exploded in Baghdad and northern Iraq on Saturday, killing at least 12 people and injuring dozens, authorities said.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondents Qais Mizher and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad, Dlovan Brwari in Mosul and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.