Iraqi Parliament Backs Security Accord Covering British, Other Non-U.S. Troops

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

BAGHDAD, Dec. 23 -- Iraq's parliament on Tuesday night signed off on a security agreement that would allow thousands of British troops and a few hundred soldiers from a handful of other countries to stay in Iraq until next summer.

The approval, which was delayed by recent fights in parliament, paves the way for the Iraqi government to sign a security agreement with Britain that covers small contingents from Australia, Estonia and Romania.

Those troops will be authorized to stay in Iraq until July, and their departure will mark the end of the "coalition of the willing."

The 200-troop contingent from El Salvador, which was part of Tuesday's agreement, will return home next month, Salvadoran President Elías Antonio Saca announced Tuesday, according to press reports in El Salvador. Britain has said it intends to withdraw its 4,000 troops from southern Iraq by the end of May.

The non-American foreign troops that remain in Iraq work primarily in training and advisory capacities.

Shortly after the security agreement was approved, Iraq's abrasive and divisive parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, announced his resignation, bowing to calls for his ouster from Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers.

In announcing his resignation, Mashhadani acknowledged that he often lost his temper and said his frazzled state of mind is the product of having spent 35 years in prison before the war began.

"If I harmed you, I want you to know that I love you and I hope you forgive me," the gray-haired speaker told his colleagues.

Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab who belongs to Ahal al-Iraq, a small party within the Sunni bloc in parliament, has alienated and enraged colleagues -- including fellow Sunnis -- since he became speaker in April 2006. His long-winded speeches often delayed passage of key legislation.

During a recent hearing, he lashed out at colleagues, telling them, "There is no honor in leading this parliament."

The security agreement with the British government, which dovetails with the one signed last month with the United States, was not particularly controversial. But lawmakers did not address it until Tuesday because they had been preoccupied with concerns about Mashhadani.

Also on Tuesday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that the country remains "fragile" and that the next two months will be a "critical" period. Odierno said extremists are likely to carry out attacks in the lead-up to provincial elections set for Jan. 31. They also could exploit snags in the implementation of the U.S. security agreement, which will give Iraqi authorities greater control over security operations starting in January, he said.

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