Iraqi lawmakers vote on US security pact Wednesday
By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA and QASSIM ABDULZAHRA,Associated Press Writers AP - Sunday, November 23
BAGHDAD - The Iraqi parliament will vote Wednesday on a pact that would allow American troops to stay in Iraq for three more years, but the government's hopes of winning a wide margin of approval to ensure the deal's legitimacy appeared to be fading.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his top ministers struggled Saturday to rally support for the pact, arguing that Iraqi security forces aren't ready to stand on their own. A U.N. mandate for the American troop presence expires Dec. 31, and U.S. military operations would have to stop immediately without a new mandate or the legal cover of the pact being considered by parliament.
The defense minister warned that losing the protection of the U.S. Navy could even bring piracy to Persian Gulf waters like that preying on international shipping off the African nation of Somalia.
The vote originally was planned for Monday, but Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani announced the new date after six hours of speeches by lawmakers closed out this week's debate on the pact.
Al-Mashhadani said the vote could be held earlier than Wednesday if the Shiite-led governing coalition and other political groups reached an understanding, but that seemed unlikely after days of contentious debate and even some scuffling among legislators.
The speaker, a Sunni Arab, rated chances for the pact's passage at "50-50."
That assessment was a harsh one for al-Maliki, who needs a broad consensus. Failure to achieve that could deepen antagonism among Iraq's political factions, which are heavily based on ethnic and sectarian loyalties.
The security pact emerged from nine months of tough talks between U.S. and Iraqi negotiators, and the Iraqi Cabinet approved it a week ago on the grounds that it provided a clear timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces after more than five years of war.
But many Iraqis see the American presence as a smear on national sovereignty, even if some believe it is needed for now to combat a lingering insurgency.
In the 275-seat parliament, the security pact also has become a flashpoint for attacks on al-Maliki in what could be a campaign warm-up ahead of provincial elections Jan. 31 and general elections late next year.
On Saturday, several lawmakers said it made no sense to approve a deal with a U.S. administration that has less than two months in office and argued a better option would be to negotiate a new pact once Barack Obama becomes president.
The proposed pact calls for American troops to pull out of Iraqi cities by next June 30 and to leave the country by Jan. 1, 2012. During his campaign, Obama said he would pull U.S. combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months of moving into the White House, which would be May 2010.
Iraq and the United States say the pact's timetable for withdrawal could be sped up, but not delayed.
However, critics in parliament said they should have been given months, not days, to study and debate the deal. They said negotiations were conducted in secrecy without their input.
"What is really bothering me is that we are always in a hurry, and we later regret what we do," said Maysoun Damlouji, a female lawmaker from a 25-seat secularist bloc led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister.
A lawmaker loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militiamen have fought U.S. troops in major uprisings, complained that the document was first written in English and later translated into Arabic.
Even the pact's supporters acknowledge it amounts to a compromise by Iraq, because U.S.-led foreign troops would stay longer on Iraqi soil. But they say it's a better alternative than extending the U.N. mandate, due to expire Dec. 31, that would allow American troops far more freedom to operate.
"The agreement has many negatives, but extending the mandate legitimizes the occupation and infringes on national sovereignty," said Hadi al-Amri, a lawmaker from the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the senior Shiite partner in al-Maliki's coalition.
Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi said the deal is necessary because the early departure of U.S. troops would leave Iraqis vulnerable to threats such as al-Qaida in Iraq, which has been severely weakened in combat operations but could attempt to recover.
He also mentioned the danger of piracy like that in the sea lanes near Somalia.
A hasty pullout "would allow what is happening in the Gulf of Aden ... to happen to us here," al-Obeidi warned, saying the Iraqi navy does not have the resources to operate effectively at this time. The navy only has patrol boats.
Pirates have wreaked havoc on shipping in the Gulf of Aden over the past year, seizing dozens of ships off Somalia. Some have been released for ransom.
Iraq exports oil through the Persian Gulf from its southern port of Basra, and depends on oil for more than 90 percent of its national budget.
In addition to setting a U.S. withdrawal timetable, the proposed pact would put American military operations under strict Iraqi oversight and would bar U.S. forces from using Iraqi territory for attacks on neighboring nations.
The deal also would give Iraqi officials limited powers to prosecute U.S. soldiers and civilian Pentagon employees in the case of serious crimes committed off-base and off-duty.
Al-Maliki has said he wants the deal approved by consensus, and the country's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has indicated the pact will be acceptable only if it wins passage in the legislature by a big majority.
However, the government can muster just over 140 votes if it gets the support of all the lawmakers in parliament's main Shiite and Kurdish blocs, the key partners in al-Maliki's coalition. That would be only a few votes above the simple majority threshold.
Picking up the 44 seats of the government's Sunni Arab partners, the Iraqi Accordance Front, could give the government the emphatic margin of victory it seeks. But leaders of the bloc are making their approval conditional on reforms to give their minority community a bigger say in running the country, a demand the prime minister has said is tantamount to political blackmail.
Several smaller groups, notably al-Sadr's bloc, oppose the pact.
Parliament is being asked only to approve or reject the agreement, and lawmakers cannot seek amendments. If the accord passes, it will go to President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies for ratification. Each has veto power.
Saturday's debate was orderly, in contrast to chaotic scenes in earlier sessions when opposition lawmakers loyal to al-Sadr disrupted debate.
A senior Shiite lawmaker close to al-Maliki said parliament should pass the deal as long as the government promises to revoke or change it if implementation is deemed harmful to Iraqis. The comment by Khalid al-Attiyah, deputy parliament speaker, drew mild applause.
Article 30 of the agreement requires one year's notice if either side decides to terminate the pact.
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