Key Shiite clerics warn Iraqi gov't about US pact
By HAMZA HENDAWI,Associated Press Writer AP - Saturday, November 15
BAGHDAD - Iraq's two most powerful Shiite clerics on Friday challenged the government's planned security pact with the United States, undercutting efforts to reach a deal before the U.N. mandate for American troops in Iraq expires Dec. 31.
Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr renewed threats to unleash his militia fighters to attack U.S. forces unless they leave Iraq immediately, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani vowed to intervene if he concludes the proposed agreement governing the presence of U.S. forces infringes on national sovereignty.
Iraqi officials have said they will seek a renewal of the U.N. Security Council's mandate if the pact, which would allow American troops to stay in Iraq through 2011, is not passed by parliament by year's end.
The pressure from the clerics showcases the precarious position of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Most of his Shiite allies reject the deal, including the senior partner in his coalition, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and his own spiritual guide, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon.
Al-Sadr's threat to attack American troops if they don't leave came in a statement by the Iran-based cleric that was read to thousands of supporters at Friday prayers in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City enclave and the city of Kufa, south of Baghdad.
"I repeat my call on the occupier to get out from the land of our beloved Iraq, without retaining bases or signing agreements," he said. "If they do stay, I urge the honorable resistance fighters ... to direct their weapons exclusively against the occupier."
The statement did not say when or under what conditions the attacks might resume.
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia fought the Americans in 2004 and again last spring, although it was battered by the U.S. military. Hundreds of militiamen died in those battles, but the tenacity of al-Sadr's loyalists forced American troops into weeks of fighting.
Al-Sadr called on breakaway cells from the Mahdi Army to join the "Promised Day Brigade," a name he used for the first time Friday. It refers to a unit of seasoned and loyal fighters who remained armed after he ordered the militia disbanded in July.
The cleric is backed by 30 lawmakers in the 275-member parliament and enjoys the support of a significant segment of Shiites in Iraq's oil-rich south, also home to the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala. Last month, tens of thousands of al-Sadr supporters rallied in Baghdad to oppose the security pact.
But the biggest threat to the proposed agreement was the warning relayed from al-Sistani, who has the political muscle to sink the deal.
An official close to al-Sistani said Friday that the cleric has vowed to "directly intervene" if the final version of the agreement breaches Iraq's sovereignty. The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Al-Sistani does not talk to reporters, instead conveying his political views through edicts or leaks by officials at his office in Najaf. The tone of Friday's comment suggests he wants al-Maliki's government to heed his concerns before it refers the draft to parliament.
Most of Iraq's Shiites consider al-Sistani to be infallible, and politicians routinely consult with him before they take a position on key issues. The agreement would have virtually no chance of parliamentary approval if he publicly spoke against it.
Al-Sistani's reported view was stronger than an Oct. 29 announcement from the cleric's office that said he wanted Iraqi sovereignty to be protected in the agreement.
The escalation by al-Sistani is likely to rattle al-Maliki, whose government has sought changes to the pact to satisfy critics.
The Bush administration last week responded to Iraqi demands for changes in the text before al-Maliki sends the deal to his Cabinet and then to parliament. U.S. officials described the text as final and said it was up to the Iraqis to push the process further, but Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh later said the changes agreed to by Washington were "not enough."
Iraq is understood to have demanded guarantees for its right to try U.S. soldiers and defense contractors for serious crimes committed off-duty and off-base and to ensure that the United States does not use Iraqi territory to attack a neighboring country, like Iran or Syria.
It also wanted stronger language to clarify that U.S. troops cannot stay in Iraq after Dec. 31, 2011.
Many Shiite politicians have looked to al-Sistani for political cover on the question of the agreement, fearing that publicly supporting it in a country where most people see the Americans as occupiers could cost their parties in provincial elections due by Jan. 31 and a national ballot late in 2009.
This is particularly true of the Supreme Council, al-Maliki's senior coalition partner and the largest Shiite party. It is closely allied with al-Sistani and has the additional worry of losing the support of Iran if it publicly backs the agreement.
Iran, which enjoys considerable influence with Iraq's Shiite parties, bitterly opposes the deal, which it sees as enshrining the U.S. military presence in Iraq and posing a threat to its own security.
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