- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

BAGHDAD | U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have agreed on a draft of a security pact that would allow U.S. troops to stay in Iraq for three more years after their U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31, a senior aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday.

The aide said the draft could be put to a Cabinet vote in an emergency meeting Sunday or Monday. Transport Minister Amir Abdul-Jabbar said he had been notified by the Cabinet secretariat that a Cabinet meeting was scheduled for Sunday to vote on the agreement. If adopted by the Cabinet, it would then require parliamentary approval.

In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe described the final document on the security pact as beneficial to both nations.

“We think this is a good document, that serves both Iraqis and Americans well. We remain hopeful that the Iraqi government will conclude this process soon,” Mr. Johndroe said Saturday.

The al-Maliki aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the agreement stood “a good chance” of being passed by a two-thirds majority in the 37-member Cabinet.

“I can say now that the two sides have agreed on a final draft,” the aide said.

Passage of the agreement in the Cabinet could bode well for how it fares in the 275-seat parliament, where it needs a simple majority to pass, since the political blocs in Mr. al-Maliki’s government dominate the legislature.

The final step in the process of adopting the agreement would be the ratification of the parliamentary vote by President Jalal Talabani and his two vice presidents. The three met Saturday to review the final version of the agreement, according to Mr. Talabani’s office.

Iraq has 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, like Iran or Syria.

It also wanted stronger language to clarify that U.S. troops cannot stay in Iraq after Dec. 31, 2011.

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Mr. al-Maliki’s senior coalition partner and the country’s largest Shi’ite party, has said that it would only sign off on the agreement if it does not breach the country’s sovereignty and is endorsed by the country’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

A senior official at Ayatollah al-Sistani’s office in Najaf said Friday that the Iranian-born cleric would “intervene” if the final draft infringed on Iraq’s sovereignty.

The comment suggested that Ayatollah al-Sistani was prepared to publicly declare his opposition to the agreement if he thought it hurt Iraq’s national interests. Such a move would bury the deal or require another round of talks with fewer than seven weeks left before the U.N. mandate expires. Iraqi officials say they will seek the mandate’s renewal if parliament does not approve the pact.

Two senior Shi’ite lawmakers close to Mr. al-Maliki, Ali al-Adeeb and Khalid al-Attiyah, traveled Saturday to Najaf, where they met with Ayatollah al-Sistani for 90 minutes in what appeared to be a last attempt to win his support.

When asked about Ayatollah al-Sistani’s position, Mr. al-Attiyah said the cleric stressed the need for “national accord,” a possible suggestion that he might endorse the agreement if parliament passes it by a comfortable majority.

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