BAGHDAD – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ruling Shiite coalition withheld support Sunday for the proposed security pact that would keep U.S. troops here for three more years, dealing a setback to American hopes of a speedy approval of the agreement.
The statement by the United Iraqi Alliance called for unspecified changes to the draft agreement, which parliament must ratify by the end of the year when the U.N. mandate expires.
The group’s move comes a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators, mostly Shiites, took to the streets of Baghdad to show their opposition to the agreement.
The Shiite alliance holds 85 of parliament’s 275 seats and al-Maliki needs its solid support to win approval of the agreement by a strong majority.
The 30 lawmakers loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have already said they will vote against the agreement, and some Sunni lawmakers have spoken out against it too.
But the alliance represents the groups that profited the most from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled their archenemy Saddam Hussein. The fact that it was hesitant to commit to the agreement underscores the ambivalent feelings many Iraqis have toward the Americans after five years of war.
In its statement, the alliance said the agreement, hammered out in months of difficult negotiations, contained some “positive points” but more time was needed “for discussion, dialogue and to amend some of its articles.”
The alliance established a committee to solicit views and study the agreement in detail, the statement added. Al-Maliki aide Yassin Majid said Sunday that the prime minister had postponed a planned visit this week to Australia to deal with the security agreement.
The alliance did not specify what it considered positive or negative, and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned it would be difficult to reopen negotiations.
The agreement provides for American troops to leave Baghdad and other Iraqi cities by the end of June and withdraw from the country entirely by the end of 2011 unless the government asks them to stay.
It would also give Iraq limited authority to prosecute U.S. soldiers and contractors for crimes committed off post and off duty, limit U.S. authority to search homes and detain people and give Iraqis more say in the conduct of American military operations.
Al-Maliki aide Sami al-Askari said that several members of the alliance wanted to remove language allowing the government to ask any Americans to stay beyond the end of 2011.
He also said some members wanted to know who would decide whether crimes committed by Americans met the standard for Iraqi trials.
Hassan al-Suneid, a lawmaker from al-Maliki’s party, said members had reservations about portions “that don’t comply with Iraq’s sovereignty.”
“We cannot talk today about rejection or acceptance in the absolute,” al-Suneid said. “There are weak and strong points,” including a timeline for the departure of American troops.
Some lawmakers complained the language in the draft was vague, especially those governing U.S. military operations and legal jurisdiction over American troops and contractors.
Although the alliance did not reject the accord outright, the review process within a coalition whose leaders negotiated the accord could well mean that parliament will not vote on the agreement until after the Nov. 4 U.S. election.
Political consultations continued late Sunday between al-Maliki and the National Security Council, which includes the president, the vice presidents, the parliament speaker and leaders of major political factions. A government statement said the talks included the preparedness of the Iraqi security forces.