BAGHDAD – After months of painstaking negotiations between Baghdad and Washington, the Iraqi Cabinet on Sunday approved a bilateral agreement allowing U.S. troops to remain in this country for three more years.
The accord still needs approval by Iraq’s parliament, but the Cabinet vote indicated that most major Iraqi parties supported it. The Iraqi government spokesman portrayed the pact as closing the book on the occupation that began with the U.S.-led 2003 invasion.
“The total withdrawal will be completed by Dec. 31, 2011. This is not governed by circumstances on the ground,” the spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, told Iraqi reporters, pointedly rejecting the more conditional language that the U.S. government had earlier sought in the accord.
American officials have pointed out that there is nothing stopping the next Iraqi government from asking some U.S. troops to stay on. The Iraqi military is years away from being able to defend the country from external attack, according to both U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Still, there is no doubt that the accord, if passed by parliament, will sharply reduce the U.S. military’s power in Iraq. American soldiers will be required to seek warrants from Iraqi courts to execute arrests, and to hand over suspects to Iraqi authorities. U.S. troops will have to leave their combat outposts in Iraqi cities by mid-2009, withdrawing to bases.
The U.S. government has lobbied hard for the status-of-forces agreement, which would replace a United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S. presence that expires on Dec. 31. Without some legal umbrella, the 150,000 U.S. forces would have to end their operations in Iraq in a few weeks’ time, military officials said.
“We welcome the Cabinet’s approval of the agreement today,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement read by a spokeswoman. “This is an important and positive step.”
The Iraqi spokesman noted his government could cancel the agreement if its own forces became capable of controlling security at an earlier point.
“That matches the vision of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama,” al-Dabbagh said, referring to the Democrat’s plan to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months. “The Iraqi side would not mind (withdrawal) when the readiness of its forces is achieved.”
While the Cabinet vote indicated that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had rounded up the support of most of Iraq’s major parties, final passage of the accord is not guaranteed, politicians said.
One issue is timing: The notoriously slow-moving Iraqi parliament is scheduled to adjourn on Nov. 25 for a three-week break to allow lawmakers to make the hajj pilgrimage.
“We have a limited window of time,” warned Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister.
Another wild card is the position of the Sunni parties. The Shiite-led government has sought consensus so the treaty would not become a political football in the run-up to provincial elections scheduled for late January.
“There will be a problem if the Sunni bloc decides to abstain. That is quite critical,” said Haidar al-Abadi, a prominent member of the prime minister’s Dawa Party.
In addition to parliamentary approval, the agreement needs the go-ahead from Iraq’s presidential council. The Sunni representative on that council, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, has called for a national referendum on the pact.
Adnan al-Dulaimi, head of the Tawafuq bloc that includes most Sunni parties, said in an interview that he expected its members to vote for the agreement.
“Hashimi has disagreements with some small points, but that will not make him reject it,” he said.
The U.S. government began negotiating the agreement in March, and had hoped it would be signed by the summer. But the talks dragged on. Iraq won some major concessions, including the establishment of the 2011 withdrawal date instead of vaguer language favored by the Bush administration. It also rejected long-term U.S. military bases on its soil.
Still, the accord was attacked by Iraqi politicians when a near-final draft was distributed last month. Some explained their turnabout this week by noting that the U.S. government had accepted last-minute changes demanded by the Iraqi Cabinet.
The changes were mostly minor, according to people close to the negotiations, but may have allowed Iraqi politicians to portray themselves as driving a tough bargain. Lawmakers are wary of appearing too pro-American, and some faced pressure from Iran, which strongly opposes the accord, Iraqi officials and analysts said.