- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s prime minister went on national television Tuesday to defend a security pact with the United States that keeps U.S. forces in Iraq through 2011, and to assure neighbors that Iraqi territory would not be used to attack them.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged that he had concerns about the agreement, but said it was a step toward full Iraqi sovereignty once the last U.S. troops leave.

“I say to you with complete honesty that we have reservations about the agreement, but we at the same time see it as a solid prelude to the restoration of Iraq’s full sovereignty in three years’ time,” Mr. al-Maliki said.

“I assure you that there are no secret clauses or annexes in the agreement, nor permanent military bases in Iraq,” he said. “Iraq will never be a conduit or a staging ground for an attack on any other nation.”

In the pursuit of a good deal for Iraq, he said, negotiations with the United States repeatedly hit snags. The negotiations, he said, were “complex and difficult.”

The Cabinet approved the agreement, which now goes to a vote Monday in the 275-seat parliament. Mr. al-Maliki’s coalition partners dominate the legislature, so the vote has a good chance of approval. The Iraqi president and his two deputies would then need to ratify it.

Mr. al-Maliki’s comments followed the dispatch of Iraqi envoys to the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Turkey to brief their leaders on the pact.

Turkey and the Emirates are U.S. allies, but Iran is a longtime U.S. adversary and had until this week strongly opposed the security pact. It was surprisingly positive on the pact after it was signed.

That apparent policy shift was widely interpreted as a reflection of Iran’s desire to improve relations with Washington two months ahead of President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration. Mr. Obama has pledged to start pulling out troops after moving into the White House Jan. 20.

Mr. al-Maliki’s envoys are led by Akram al-Hakim, minister of state for reconciliation affairs.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, meanwhile, said the pact would only be viable if Iraq’s main political groups backed it.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wields enormous influence among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites, said he wanted the pact to secure Iraqi stability and sovereignty and “win the support of all Iraqis and their main political groups.”

“Any agreement that does not meet those two demands … cannot be accepted,” said Ayatollah al-Sistani, who called on lawmakers to “rise to their historic responsibility before God and the people.”

The ayatollah’s nod to the agreement removed a potential hurdle in the way of the pact, which provides for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and the country by Jan. 1, 2012.

The agreement places U.S. military operations and movement under stringent Iraqi control. It also gives the Iraqis limited judicial powers over American soldiers and defense contractors in the case of serious crimes committed off-base and off-duty.