Mon, Nov 17, 2008 - Page 1 News List

Baghdad approves wide-ranging pact with US military

AFP , BAGHDAD

Iraq’s Cabinet defied fiery opposition from Shiite hardliners yesterday to approve a wide-ranging military pact that includes a timetable for the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of 2011.

Baghdad and Washington have been scrambling for months to reach an agreement that would govern the status of more than 150,000 US soldiers stationed in some 400 bases across the country after their UN mandate expires on Dec. 31.

The Cabinet approved the agreement after a two-and-a-half hour meeting, with 27 ministers out of 38 voting for it, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

“There was a positive position taken on the part of the larger blocs and all the most important blocs,” Dabbagh told reporters after the vote.

“They all expressed a positive position because they consider it the best [agreement] possible, because it will manage and end the military presence and guarantee the complete withdrawal of the troops,” he said.

The measure will now need to be approved by a majority of parliament through a process that will take at least a week.

It would then be ratified by Iraq’s presidential council before Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would sign the deal with US President George W. Bush.

Iraq’s lead negotiator, Muwafaq al-Rubaie, said on Friday he believed the draft agreement was a “very good text” and expected it to be approved by parliament as well.

The White House, too, was upbeat on Friday, describing the text of the accord as a “good agreement” that suits both countries.

It took nearly 11 months of tense and detailed negotiations before both Baghdad and Washington were comfortable with the Status of Forces Agreement pact on the future of US forces in Iraq.

“At some stages we went through we said well, this couldn’t be done. It is very difficult, it is literally impossible to do. Other times we said well, okay, it’s better now, we have progressed,” Rubaie said.

The draft agreement includes 31 articles and calls for US troops to pull out of Iraqi cities by next June and from the entire country by the end of 2011.

But the pact has drawn fire from hardline nationalists, especially the anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters have called for mass demonstrations to oppose any agreement with the US “occupier.”

Iraq has seen dramatic improvements in security over the past year as US and Iraqi forces have allied with local tribal militias to flush insurgents and militias out of vast swathes of the country that were once ungovernable.

The reduction in violence has also been partly attributed to an order by Sadr at the end of August last year to his thousands-strong Mehdi Army militia to observe a ceasefire.

But on Friday Sadr announced the creation of a new militia — the Brigades of the Promised Day — to fight the Americans and demanded that “the occupier leaves our beloved Iraq without any bases and without any accord.”

The objections of the firebrand cleric, who is believed to be living in Iran, will have little impact on the decision, given that his party only holds 28 seats in Iraq’s 275-seat parliament.

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