- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq’s Cabinet delayed a decision Sunday on the draft security agreement that would keep American troops here for three more years, and one prominent lawmaker suggested some parties may be stalling until after the U.S. election on Nov. 4.

The Bush administration has been hoping for a quick agreement by the Iraqis on the pact, which must be approved by parliament before the U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.

Without an agreement, or an extension of the mandate, the U.S. military would probably suspend operations because there would be no legal basis for the mission.

The 37-member Cabinet, made up of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, canceled an extraordinary session called for Sunday to discuss the agreement and review proposed changes that would be submitted to the Americans.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that there are some groups that want to delay the issue until after the U.S. elections,” prominent Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman told the Associated Press. “They think that it is better to deal or to reach a better understanding with the new administration, and they are not in a hurry.”

A top aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Sadiq al-Rikabi, said the meeting was put off because “proposals are still arriving” from the ministries. The Cabinet routinely meets on Tuesdays.

The only political group that has come out in favor of the agreement is the Kurdish alliance, which controls 54 of the 275 seats in parliament.

Followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who hold another 30 seats, have rejected any security agreement that would keep U.S. troops here.

But other parties are keeping their options open, although individual members have complained that the draft doesn’t go far enough in affirming Iraqi sovereignty.

Al-Maliki aides say the prime minister will not forward the draft to parliament unless he is sure of an overwhelming approval.

Khalaf al-Ilyan, a leader of the main Sunni bloc, insisted that the delay was simply to allow political leaders time to study the document, which would set new rules for how the American military will operate in Iraq.

He also said unspecified “external pressures” were delaying a decision presumably pressure from the United States to sign off on the deal and from the Iranians to oppose it.

Attention has fallen on the main Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is Mr. al-Maliki’s major partner in the government. But the Supreme Council also maintains close ties to Iran, which gave asylum to many party leaders during Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.

One lawmaker from the Supreme Council said his group was waiting to see whether the Americans will accept changes because it believes the agreement cannot win parliamentary approval in its current form.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because his party has not decided whether to support the deal.

The proposed security pact called for all U.S. combat forces to be removed from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and for all troops to leave the country by the end of 2011, unless both sides agree to an extension.

It would also grant Iraq limited legal jurisdiction over American soldiers and contractors who are now immune from trial before Iraqi courts. Some politicians have urged changes in that provision to clarify how the two governments would decide which cases the Iraqis could prosecute.

The draft would also require American troops to have an Iraqi warrant before searching houses or detaining people, except in active combat, and set up a joint commission to oversee U.S. military operations.

Also Sunday, a lawmaker said Iraq’s long-stalled oil and gas law finally has been sent by the Cabinet to parliament for discussion.

The move sets the stage for a new public debate over how to manage the country’s vast oil wealth, which Iraq needs to finance the reconstruction of the country, even as world oil prices have been falling.

Abdul-Hadi al-Hassani, the deputy chairman of the parliamentary committee on oil, gas and natural resources, said the panel is reviewing the bill to prepare it for the full legislature.

Iraq’s Cabinet endorsed the bill in February 2007, but disputes later emerged between the Kurds and central government, mainly over who has the final say in managing oil and gas fields.

Since then, the measure has gone through four versions.

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