Iraq’s prime minister said on Friday the country’s most influential Shiite cleric will leave the decision on the future of US troops to the government and parliament — a step that could remove a major obstacle to the deal.
Tension rose in the Iraqi capital on Friday as a car bomb killed 13 people in a Shiite enclave and thousands of Shiites marched to mourn the assassination of a Shiite lawmaker that their leaders blamed on the US.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, journeyed on Friday to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to brief Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani about the progress in talks with the US on a security agreement governing operations of US forces starting next year.
After a two-and-a-half hour meeting, al-Maliki told reporters that the aged Iranian-born cleric would not oppose the security deal if it’s approved by the country’s democratic institutions, including parliament, which must ratify the pact.
“He does not want anything forced or imposed on the Iraqi people,” al-Maliki said. “Rather he wants it to be done through the institutions. If the government and the parliament approve this, then [al-Sistani] will be convinced that is what the Iraqi people have decided.”
Al-Sistani’s office had no comment.
However, it would be politically untenable for al-Maliki to accept a deal and send it to parliament for ratification if al-Sistani spoke out publicly against it.
Al-Sistani’s insistence that only elected officials draft Iraq’s first constitution after the 2003 fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein forced the US to change its blueprint for the country’s transition to democratic rule.
Al-Sistani also pressured the US to agree to the first post-Saddam elections in January 2005, even though many US officials believed the country was too unstable for a meaningful balloting.
US and Iraqi officials have said they are close to an agreement that would replace the UN mandate for US forces in Iraq that expires on Dec. 31. But the most contentious issue — legal jurisdiction and immunity for US troops under Iraqi law — remains unresolved.
Al-Maliki said the US had made major concessions, including agreeing to pull US forces back to their bases by the end of June and to a full withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011.
US President George W. Bush had refused for years to set a timetable for a troop withdrawal, saying that should depend on security conditions on the ground. Iraqi politicians say they cannot sell the deal to their war-weary public without a timeline for the end of the US presence.
However, one senior US official, close to the talks, confirmed on Friday that the US had agreed to the June and 2011 dates.
The official, who requested anonymity because the talks are ongoing, said the US still believes that security conditions should determine the withdrawal schedule but that Washington can live with the language in the draft deal.
Iran strongly opposes the agreement, fearing it would leave open the possibility of a US military presence on its western border. Iraqi officials have said the US departure could be delayed if the government asked the US to stay.
US officials accuse Iran of arming and training Iraqi Shiite extremists, who could use violence to pressure the government against the deal. Iran denies links to extremists.
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