- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2008

BAGHDAD

A heated parliamentary debate on the U.S.-Iraq security treaty was called to an early close Wednesday as lawmakers loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr scuffled with security guards for the foreign minister and the speaker of the legislature and his two deputies.

The session was chaotic from the start, with lawmakers shouting at each other. Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani added to the din by repeatedly yelling at legislators to sit down or keep quiet, but failed to restore order.

The turmoil followed the announcement by two small political factions that they would join Mr. al-Sadr’s supporters in opposing the security pact, which would allow American forces to stay in Iraq for three more years and is backed by the governing coalition.

The Shi’ite Fadhila party, which has 15 seats in parliament, said it would vote against the agreement. Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of a small Sunni Arab bloc with 11 seats, said a U.N. mandate under which U.S. forces are in Iraq should be renewed for six months when it expires Dec. 31 so the government could negotiate a new pact.

Sadrist legislators tried to shout down a lawmaker from the ruling Shi’ite coalition who was reading the treaty’s text to the chamber.

When the lawmaker, Hassan al-Sineid, kept reading, Sadrist lawmaker Ahmed al-Massoudi aggressively approached the bench. He appeared to be on the verge of grabbing the document from Mr. al-Sineid, seated next to Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, when security guards intervened.

Scuffling erupted and then escalated when other Sadrist legislators rushed to help their colleague, prompting the speaker to hurriedly declare the session adjourned until Thursday.

The Sadrists later said Mr. al-Massoudi was punched in the face by one of Mr. Zebari’s guards.

The pact already was approved by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Cabinet, boosting its chances for passage when parliament votes on it Monday, because the main parties in the governing coalition dominate the body.

But the vocal opposition points to a possibly narrow victory for the government in the vote, which would cast a shadow on the legitimacy of a deal that Mr. al-Maliki has said should be approved with a broad consensus. Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the deal would be acceptable only if approved by a wide margin in parliament.

If the measure passes the legislature, it will go to the president and his two deputies for ratification. Each one - President Jalal Talabani and Vice Presidents Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashemi - has the power to veto the agreement.

A modest show of popular support for the agreement was on display Wednesday, when several hundred people staged demonstrations in support of the pact in the mainly Shi’ite southern cities of Basra, Karbala and Najaf.

Under the agreement, which reflects an improving security climate, U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of next June and from the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012.

The United States defended the agreement Wednesday, with Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell saying the document provided the time and authority needed for American troops to train Iraqi forces and go after terrorists.

Mr. Morrell spoke as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to Capitol Hill to explain and defend the agreement to Congress.

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