British troops out of Iraq by end of 2009: Iraqi official
AFP - Saturday, November 15
BAGHDAD (AFP) - - All British troops will be out of Iraq by the end of next year and a controversial Iraq-US security pact is likely to be approved by Baghdad this weekend, Iraq's national security adviser said Friday.
Radical anti-US Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile, announced the activation of a new militia against the American "occupier," and urged Muslim countries to join in protests against the proposed security accord.
Baghdad has been racing to secure separate agreements with both Britain and the United States to replace the UN mandate currently governing the presence of foreign troops in the country, which expires on December 31.
"By the end of next year there will be no British troops in Iraq. By the end of 2009," security adviser Muwafaq al-Rubaie said, adding that negotiations between London and Baghdad on the pull-out had begun two weeks ago.
In an interview with AFP, Rubaie was upbeat on prospects of the Iraqi cabinet approving the military accord with Washington this weekend.
"I honestly believe we have reached now a very good text... And this text will secure the complete, full, irrevocable sovereignty of Iraq," said Rubaie, who is also Baghdad's chief negotiator on the security pact.
"I believe, I hope, that the council of ministers will pass the new text Sunday and (then) it will be passed on to the parliament."
A British defence ministry spokesman in London said in response to Rubaie's comments that Britain has "no timetable" for the withdrawal of its roughly 4,000 troops in Iraq, the vast majority of whom are based in the southern city of Basra.
"At the minute, we have no timetable," the spokesman told AFP.
"We are hopefully making progress, we have made progress in Basra, and we are on course to meet the (British) prime minister's fundamental change of mission in 2009," the spokesman said, reiterating previously stated plans.
Iraq's cabinet was expected to vote on the so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a wide-ranging US military pact some time this weekend. The two sides have been wrangling over the document for months.
Rubaie insisted however that the agreement Iraq sought with the British was simpler and would not take as much time to complete.
"It will be a much shorter agreement with the UK," Rubaie said. "And it progresses quite nicely. It's much shorter and much simpler."
He added that by the middle of next year there would be a "dramatic" reduction of British troops.
In July, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicated he wanted to cut the number of Britain's troops in the violence-wracked country but ruled out a timetable for their withdrawal.
Iraq has seen dramatic improvements in security over the past year as US and Iraqi forces have allied with local tribal militias to flush insurgents and militias out of vast swathes of the country that were once ungovernable.
The reducation in violence has also been partly attributed to an order by cleric Sadr at the end of August 2007 to his thousands-strong Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, to observe a ceasefire.
On Friday, however, Sadr indicated that at least part of the militia would be reactivated.
"I repeat my demand that the occupier leaves our beloved Iraq without any bases and without any accord," Sadr said in a statement read at Kufa, south of Baghdad, by Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, his spokesman.
"As long as the (American forces) remain I will support the resistance, and especially the Brigades of the Promised Day," he added, referring to a militia he said he activated to resist the "occupier."
The Shiite cleric, who is believed to be living in Iran, also appealed for a "universal demonstration... against the accord and hopes that all Islamic nations support prayers and protests in their countries."
Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, meanwhile made it clear on Friday that he will leave it to the government to decide on the controversial US military pact.
"The Guide (Sistani) called for general elections which produced the country's government and the parliament," a religious official close to Sistani told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"It is their constitutional responsibility to decide on the agreement."
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