Top Shiite Cleric in Iraq Raises Concerns About Security Pact

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 30, 2008

BAGHDAD, Nov. 29 -- Iraq's preeminent Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has expressed concern about the country's security agreement with the United States, saying it gives the Americans the upper hand and does not do enough to protect Iraqi sovereignty, an official at his office said Saturday.

Sistani, whose words carry great weight in Iraq, did not reject the pact outright and indicated that he would leave it to voters to decide its fate in a national referendum to be held by July 30. His comments will almost certainly bring pressure on the Shiite-led government and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to fulfill their promise to hold the vote.

The agreement, approved by Iraq's parliament Thursday, calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from towns and cities by next summer and from Iraq by the end of 2011. It also calls for Iraqi oversight of American forces; U.S. troops could be prosecuted under Iraqi laws for serious crimes committed when they are off duty and off base although the United States retains the power to determine whether a service member was off duty.

The pact required a simple majority of 138 votes in the 275-seat parliament for approval. Lawmakers said 149 members endorsed the security agreement, 35 opposed it and 14 abstained. Seventy-seven members were not present.

The official from Sistani's office said the margin had not satisfied the Iranian-born cleric, who had said any deal should have the support of all Iraqi parties to be legitimate. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of custom and the sensitivity of the matter.

The pact also needs to be ratified by Iraq's three-member presidency council.

Sistani, the official said, considered parts of the agreement "a mystery" -- especially those pertaining to the legal jurisdiction of U.S. forces and the mechanisms to control U.S. troops' entry into and exit from Iraq.

Sistani said the pact provided "no guarantee" that Iraq would regain sovereignty and questioned whether Iraq's assets would be protected under it. He also said he fears that Iraq's government is too weak to implement the agreement and will buckle to "American pressure," the official said.

Critics of the accord have complained that it does not specifically protect Iraq's oil wealth and other assets from being seized by those seeking claims against Saddam Hussein's government.

Iraqi officials were not available for comment on Sistani's remarks.

All major Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni political parties voted in favor of the pact. Loyalists of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, some smaller groups and a handful of Sunni lawmakers rejected it.

If voters reject the pact, Iraq's government will be required to renegotiate it with the United States or notify the U.S. military to withdraw troops by July 2010 -- 18 months ahead of the deadline outlined in the agreement. The Sunnis had demanded a nationwide vote in exchange for their support.

Early Saturday, a rocket attack on the U.S.-fortified Green Zone near a U.N. compound killed two foreigners and wounded 15, the United Nations said. Those killed worked for a catering company, the United Nations said.

No group asserted responsibility, but Sadr's Mahdi Army militia often fires rockets into the Green Zone.

Sarhan reported from Najaf.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company