Iraqi Cabinet Approves U.S. Security Pact

During a symbolic signing ceremony, Iraq ambassador Ryan Crocker said the Iraqi Cabinet's approval of a security pact extending the presence of American forces in Iraq for three years is 'historic'. The deal still needs parliamentary approval. Video by AP
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008; 9:59 AM

BAGHDAD, Nov. 17 -- Top U.S. and Iraqi officials signed a pact Monday that would allow U.S. troops to remain in this country for three more years, and the Iraqi parliament began to debate the security agreement that took months to negotiate and must be approved by Iraq's lawmakers in order to take effect. After months of tense negotiations and public protests, the Iraqi cabinet's vote Sunday to approve the bilateral agreement was an indication that most major Iraqi parties support it. An 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 Sunday's cabinet vote, in which all but one of the 28 ministers in attendance supported the accord. 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.

"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 U.S. combat troops within 16 months. "The Iraqi side would not mind [withdrawal] when the readiness of its forces is achieved."

On Monday, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker conducted a largely symbolic signing of the deal with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

"At a time when U.S. forces will continue to withdraw from Iraq, in recognition of the superlative security gains of the last few years, our relationship will develop in many other important ways," Crocker said. "This was a complicated and tough negotiation, and I think all Iraqis can be very proud of the substantial achievement that their negotiating team has registered."

Although 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.

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