- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2008

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s two most powerful Shi’ite clerics Friday challenged the government’s planned security pact with the United States, undercutting efforts to reach a deal before the U.N. mandate for American troops in Iraq expires Dec. 31.

Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr renewed threats to unleash his militia fighters to attack U.S. forces unless they leave Iraq immediately, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani vowed to intervene if he concludes the proposed agreement governing the presence of U.S. forces infringes on national sovereignty.

Iraqi officials have said they will seek a renewal of the U.N. Security Council’s mandate if the pact, which would allow American troops to stay in Iraq through 2011, is not passed by parliament by year’s end.

The pressure from the clerics showcases the precarious position of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Most of his Shi’ite allies reject the deal, including the senior partner in his coalition, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and his own spiritual guide, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon.

Mr. al-Sadr’s threat to attack American troops if they don’t leave came in a statement by the Iran-based cleric that was read to thousands of supporters at Friday prayers in Baghdad’s Shi’ite Sadr City enclave and in the city of Kufa, south of Baghdad.

“I repeat my call on the occupier to get out from the land of our beloved Iraq, without retaining bases or signing agreements,” he said. “If they do stay, I urge the honorable resistance fighters … to direct their weapons exclusively against the occupier.”

Mr. al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia fought the Americans in 2004 and again last spring, although it was battered by the U.S. military.

Mr. al-Sadr called on breakaway cells from the Mahdi Army to join the “Promised Day Brigade,” a name he used for the first time Friday. It refers to a unit of seasoned and loyal fighters who remained armed after he ordered the militia disbanded in July. The cleric is backed by 30 lawmakers in the 275-member parliament.

But the biggest threat to the proposed agreement was the warning relayed from Ayatollah al-Sistani, who has the political muscle to sink the deal.

An official close to the ayatollah said Friday that the cleric has vowed to “directly intervene” if the final version of the agreement breaches Iraq’s sovereignty. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Iraq’s politicians routinely consult with the ayatollah before they take a position on key issues. The agreement would have virtually no chance of parliamentary approval if he publicly spoke against it.

The Bush administration last week responded to Iraqi demands for changes in the text before Mr. al-Maliki sends the deal to his Cabinet and then to parliament. U.S. officials described the text as final, but Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the changes agreed to by Washington were “not enough.”

Iraq is understood to have demanded guarantees for its right to try U.S. soldiers and defense contractors for serious crimes committed off-duty and off-base and to ensure that the United States does not use Iraqi territory to attack a neighboring country, such as Iran or Syria.

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