By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008
BAGHDAD, Nov. 16 -- After months of tense negotiations and public protests, the Iraqi cabinet on Sunday approved a bilateral agreement allowing U.S. troops to remain in this country for three more years.
The accord still needs approval from Iraq's parliament, but the cabinet vote indicated that most major Iraqi parties supported it. The Iraqi government spokesman portrayed the pact as closing the book on the occupation that began with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
"The total withdrawal will be completed by December 31, 2011. This is not governed by circumstances on the ground," the spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, told Iraqi reporters, pointedly rejecting the more conditional language that the U.S. government had sought in the accord.
American officials have pointed out that there is nothing stopping the next Iraqi government from asking some U.S. troops to stay. The Iraqi military is years away from being able to defend the country from external attack, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Still, there is no doubt that the accord, if passed by parliament, would sharply reduce the U.S. military's power in Iraq. American soldiers would be required to seek warrants from Iraqi courts to execute arrests, and to hand over suspects to Iraqi authorities. U.S. troops would have to leave combat outposts in Iraqi cities by mid-2009, withdrawing to bases.
The U.S. government has lobbied hard for the status-of-forces agreement, which would replace a United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S. presence until Dec. 31. Without some legal umbrella, the 150,000 U.S. forces would have to end operations in Iraq in a few weeks' time, military officials said.
The White House welcomed the cabinet's decision.
"While the process is not yet complete, we remain hopeful and confident we'll soon have an agreement that serves both the people of Iraq and the United States well and sends a signal to the region and the world that both our governments are committed to a stable, secure and democratic Iraq," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement.
The Iraqi spokesman noted that his government could cancel the agreement if its own forces became capable of controlling security at an earlier time.
"That matches the vision of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama," Dabbagh said, referring to the Democrat's plan to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months. "The Iraqi side would not mind [withdrawal] when the readiness of its forces is achieved."
While the Cabinet vote indicated that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had rounded up the support of most of Iraq's major parties, final passage of the accord is not guaranteed, politicians said.
One issue is timing: The notoriously slow-moving Iraqi parliament is scheduled to adjourn Nov. 25 for a three-week break for hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage.
"We have a limited window of time," warned Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister.
Another wild card is the stance of the Sunni parties. The Shiite-led government has sought consensus so the treaty would not become a political football in the run-up to provincial elections scheduled for late January.
"There will be a problem if the Sunni bloc decides to abstain. That is quite critical," said Haider al-Abadi, a prominent member of the prime minister's Dawa party.
In addition to parliamentary approval, the agreement needs the go-ahead from Iraq's presidential council. The Sunni representative on that council, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, has called for a national referendum on the pact.
Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the Iraqi Accordance Front bloc that includes most Sunni parties, said in an interview that he expected its members to vote for the agreement.
"Hashimi has disagreements with some small points, but that will not make him reject it," he said.
The U.S. government began negotiating the agreement in March, and had hoped it would be signed by the summer. But the talks dragged on. Iraq won some major concessions, including the establishment of the 2011 withdrawal date instead of vaguer language favored by the Bush administration. It also rejected long-term U.S. military bases on its soil.
Still, the accord was attacked by Iraqi politicians when a near-final draft was distributed last month. Some explained their turnabout this week by noting that the U.S. government had accepted last-minute changes demanded by the Iraqi cabinet.
The changes were mostly minor, according to people close to the negotiations, but may have allowed Iraqi politicians to portray themselves as driving a tough bargain. Lawmakers are wary of appearing too pro-American, and some faced pressure from Iran, which strongly opposes the accord, Iraqi officials and analysts said.
The accord's proponents, including American officials and Iraq's defense, interior and finance ministers, appeared to make headway in arguing that there could be a security vacuum if Iraq quickly ended its dependence on U.S. military assistance.
"The alternative is worse than the agreement," said Sami al-Askeri, an adviser to Maliki who had earlier criticized the pact. "The situation is not that good" that U.S. troops could leave by year's end, he said.
All but one of the 28 ministers attending Sunday's cabinet meeting voted to approve the accord, as did Maliki, officials said. The holdout was the women's affairs minister, a Sunni belonging to Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party, they said. Several other Sunnis in attendance backed the agreement, they said.
Nine cabinet members did not attend the session because it was called on short notice and they were out of the country or otherwise unavailable, officials said.
Violence in Iraq has declined sharply in the past year, but bombings and assassinations are still common.
A suicide bomber blew up a vehicle near an Iraqi police checkpoint northeast of the city of Baqubah on Sunday, killing seven police officers and wounding three civilians, according to Col. Raghib al-U'meirie, a spokesman for the provincial police.
In Baghdad, a roadside bomb exploded in the northern Shaab neighborhood near a checkpoint manned by police and members of the Sons of Iraq, a U.S.-established group of mostly Sunni neighborhood guards.
Three of the guards were killed, police said.
Outside the southern town of Hilla, a booby-trapped car exploded in front of the house of a suburban mayor, killing a police officer, said Cap. Muthana Ahmad of the local police.
Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.