- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric has expressed concern about the country’s security pact with the United States, fearing it gives too much power to the U.S. and does not protect Iraqi sovereignty, an official at his office said Saturday.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments fell short of outright rejection but will put pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government to sell the deal to the public before Iraqi voters render a final decision in a referendum to be held by July 30.

The pact also has to be ratified by Iraq’s three-member presidential council before it comes into force.

Ayatollah al-Sistani, who wields tremendous influence among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites, had indicated that he would not object to the pact if it was passed by a comfortable majority in parliament.

Parliament approved the agreement Thursday in a session attended by just under 200 of the legislature’s 275 lawmakers. Of those in attendance, about 150 voted for the pact, which would allow U.S. forces to remain in Iraq for three more years.

The official at Ayatollah al-Sistani’s office said the Iranian-born cleric did not think there was a national consensus in favor of the pact and that this “may lead to instability in the country.”

The official added that Ayatollah al-Sistani considered parts of the agreement vague, particularly those pertaining to legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops and controls over the exit and entry into Iraq of U.S. forces.

The agreement was backed by the government’s Shi’ite, Kurdish and Sunni Arab blocs, but was opposed by the 30 lawmakers loyal to anti-American Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr as well as smaller groups.

A deadly rocket attack on the U.S.-protected Green Zone early Saturday bore the hallmarks of Shi’ite militiamen loyal to Mr. al-Sadr and may also have been linked to the security deal.

The rocket struck near a United Nations compound, killing two foreigners and wounding 15 people.

Ayatollah al-Sistani also thought the pact did not offer sufficient guarantees to restore Iraq’s full sovereignty or protect its assets, according to the official, who spoke from the cleric’s office in the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad on the condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.

He also thought Mr. al-Maliki’s government was not strong enough to withstand “American pressure” when implementing the agreement. Ayatollah al-Sistani, the official said, will leave “the acceptance or rejection of the agreement to the Iraqi people through the referendum.”

The agreement gives a clear timeline for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, from the cities by June 30 and the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012. It gives Iraq strict oversight over their movements and operations as well as limited jurisdiction in the case of serious crimes committed by U.S. soldiers and civilian Pentagon employees when off-base and off-duty.

If the agreement is rejected by voters, Iraq’s government would either have to re-negotiate it with the U.S. or drop it altogether. Putting the agreement to a vote was one of several concessions made by the government to a group of lawmakers, most of whom are Sunnis, in exchange for their support for the pact.

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