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Iraq's cabinet to debate US troops pact

Iraq's cabinet is to meet today to approve a much-delayed pact allowing US forces to remain in the country for the next three years.

world Updated: Nov 16, 2008 13:03 IST

Iraq's cabinet is due to meet on Sunday, when it could at long last approve a much-delayed pact allowing US forces to remain in the country for the next three years.

The pact, which will govern the presence of US forces beyond the end of this year, is now officially called an agreement on the withdrawal of US troops, a sign of how Iraq's government has grown more confident over long months of talks.

"We have discussed the security pact thoroughly, so today we are going to meet and vote on it -- yes or no," said Nawal al-Sammaraie, minister of women's affairs in the cabinet.

A senior aide to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki indicated that the cabinet was satisfied with the latest US draft.

"Both sides have reached an understanding over the contentious issues and the US responses conform to the demands of the Iraqi side," the aide, Ali Adeeb, told Reuters.

The draft pact calls for US forces to leave the streets of Iraq's towns and villages by the middle of next year and to leave the country by the end of 2011. It would place the US force in Iraq under the authority of the Iraqi government for the first time, replacing a U.N. Security Council mandate.

The Iraqi government has grown increasing confident of its own ability to keep order as violence has dramatically reduced in the country over the past year. Iraqi forces now have command in all but five of Iraq's 18 provinces, and took the lead role in a crackdown on Shi'ite militias earlier this year.

But Iraqi officials acknowledge they still need US military support against Sunni militants in Baghdad and four northern provinces, as well as aid in logistics and fire power.

If accepted by the cabinet, the agreement must still pass muster in the Iraqi parliament, where the cabinet's political leaders control a majority of seats.

The cabinet balked at passing an earlier draft of the pact last month, instead submitting a request to Washington for amendments.
Washington replied this month with what it called a final offer, removing language suggesting it might keep its troops on beyond the withdrawal date and adding a committment not to use Iraq as a staging ground for attacks on neighbouring states.

Iraq had also complained that language in the pact allowing its courts to try US troops for serious crimes committed off duty was too vague. Adeeb said the issue was resolved.

"Many things have changed on the issue of jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers. Both sides agreed that we should draw up a list in which we will determine what are major crimes" for which U.S. soldiers could be tried in Iraq, Adeeb said.

Iraqi leaders consider the firm deadline for withdrawal to be a negotiating victory. The outgoing US administration of President George W. Bush had long opposed setting any timetable for its troops to withdraw from Iraq.

Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr organisation, one of the main Shi'ite groups in Maliki's ruling coalition, said this week Iraqi politicians felt it would be easier to accept the pact after the election of Barack Obama, who favours withdrawal.

Iran, which has influence among Iraqi Shi'ites, still opposes the pact, as do the followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.