- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2008

From combined dispatches


Prospects of U.S. forces legally remaining in Iraq for three more years improved Sunday when the Iraqi Cabinet passed an agreement setting a 2011 deadline for an American pullout.

Iraq’s fractious parliament must still approve the deal, and it is expected to vote by the end of the month.

Iraq’s Cabinet overwhelmingly approved the pact after 11 months of negotiations to allow American forces to remain beyond the end of this year.

“It’s the best possible, available option,” said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

Mr. al-Dabbagh described the pact - intended to supplant the U.N. mandate expiring Dec. 31 - as an “agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops,” and Washington welcomed the Cabinet’s approval.

“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,” said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council.

There is a good chance that parliament will pass the agreement with a large majority, since the parties that make up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition government dominate the legislature.

Mr. al-Dabbagh said Iraq’s government has received U.S. assurances that President-elect Barack Obama would honor the agreement and pointed out that each side has the right to repeal it after giving one year’s notice.

Mr. Obama, who takes office in January, has said he would pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of moving into the White House - or May 2010.

Iraq’s neighbors and U.S. adversaries, Iran and Syria, oppose the pact, arguing that the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces offered the best option for Iraq.

The Iraqi government sought to allay their fears, amending the document to prohibit the Americans from using Iraqi territory to attack neighboring nations.

The Cabinet’s decision was made amid violence, despite a dramatic improvement in security over the past year. Fresh attacks underlined doubts about whether Iraq’s nascent security forces can stand without U.S. military support and training.

Hours after the Cabinet vote, seven people died and seven were wounded in a suicide car bombing at a police checkpoint in Diyala, a turbulent province northeast of Baghdad, according to police Col. Ahmed Khalifa, chief of the Jalula police station.

Earlier Sunday, a roadside bomb killed three people and wounded seven in northern Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said.

Mr. al-Dabbagh said all but one of 28 Cabinet ministers present in Sunday’s meeting, in addition to Mr. al-Maliki, voted for the pact. The sole vote of dissent came from Minister of Women’s Affairs Nawal al-Samaraie, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s largest Sunni Arab party.

She said she voted against the pact because she preferred that it be put to a nationwide referendum.

Khalid al-Attiyah, parliament’s deputy speaker, said he expected parliament to vote on the agreement by Nov. 24. If parliament approves the deal, President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies must ratify it.

The draft agreement includes 31 articles and calls for U.S. troops to pull out of Iraqi cities by June 2009 and from the entire country by the end of 2011.

Under the agreement, an executive and a technical committee will be established to investigate “violations” committed by U.S. forces, Mr. al-Dabbagh said, without giving further details.

Iraq had demanded the right to prosecute purported crimes committed by U.S. troops and civilians, while the United States agreed to lift their immunity only if they committed crimes off-duty and off their bases.

Mr. al-Dabbagh said Iraq had succeeded in securing the right to investigate all cargo being brought into and out of the country, another key demand it had made in the negotiations.

And the agreement will transfer the files of an estimated 16,400 detainees currently being held by U.S. forces to Iraqi judges, who will decide their fate.

The pact has drawn fire from hard-line nationalists, especially the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters have called for mass demonstrations to oppose any agreement with the U.S.

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