- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2008

BAGHDAD | A top Iraqi official warned Saturday that time is running out to sign a new security agreement with Washington, saying the country still needed U.S. troops despite improved security.

Also Saturday, a suicide bomber killed eight people and wounded 17 at an Iraqi checkpoint near Ramadi in Anbar province, the former al Qaeda stronghold that was transferred to Iraqi control on Sept. 1. The bombing was another sign that militants have still not given up the fight despite setbacks at the hands of U.S. and Iraqi forces.

“I hope that we can settle this matter as soon as possible because time is running out,” Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said of the long-delayed security pact. “The security improvement that has been achieved is very important. The support of U.S. forces in the coming period will still be very important.”

Iraq’s parliament must approve the agreement by the end of next month, when the U.N. mandate expires. The new agreement would keep U.S. forces in Iraq until 2012 and give the Iraqis broader authority over military operations until then.

Without an agreement or a new U.N. mandate, however, the U.S. military has warned that it will have to suspend operations in the country.

But strong opposition to the agreement has emerged, especially within the majority Shi’ite community that is the support base for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Last Thursday, the U.S. responded to Iraqi requests for changes in the draft to address opponents’ concerns.

Mr. al-Maliki’s government has not said whether it is satisfied with the changes or whether it will submit the draft to parliament soon. One senior official told the Associated Press that a decision on the agreement could take a month once the draft goes to parliament.

He spoke on the condition of anonymity because the issue is politically sensitive.

Mr. Saleh, a Kurd, cautioned that Iraq would enter a “period of a legal vacuum” if the U.N. mandate expires without the agreement having been approved.

“So we have to … settle this issue as soon as possible,” he said.

Many Iraqi officials and lawmakers privately acknowledge that the country’s army and police are still unable to maintain security on their own. But they find it politically risky to support an agreement that would continue what most Iraqis consider U.S. military occupation - even though the deal includes a date for the mission to end.

The Iraqis rely heavily on the U.S. military not only for fighting insurgents but also for a range of services including air-traffic management, training, air surveillance and infrastructure improvements.

All that would cease after Dec. 31 without an agreement or a new mandate.

“The most important thing is that politicians must spell out what is the alternative if the agreement is refused,” Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told reporters Saturday. “This is a serious point that the public needs to understand.”

Violence is down sharply across the country since the U.S. troop surge of 2007, and Iraqi security forces have taken responsibility for security in most of the 18 provinces.

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