Iraq's top Shiite cleric has concerns over US pact
By HAMZA HENDAWI,Associated Press Writer AP - Sunday, November 30
BAGHDAD - Iraq's top Shiite cleric has expressed concern about the country's security pact with the United States, fearing it gives too much power to the Americans and does not protect Iraqi sovereignty, an official at his office said Saturday.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's comments fell short of outright rejection but will put pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government to sell the deal to the public before Iraqi voters render a final decision in a referendum to be held by July 30.
The pact also has to be ratified by Iraq's three-man presidential council before it comes into force.
Al-Sistani, who wields tremendous influence among Iraq's majority Shiites, had indicated that he would not object to the pact if it was passed by a comfortable majority in parliament.
Parliament approved the agreement Thursday in a session attended by just under 200 of the legislature's 275 lawmakers. Of those in attendance, about 150 voted for the pact, which would allow American forces to remain in Iraq for three more years.
The official at al-Sistani's office said the Iranian-born cleric did not believe there was a national consensus in favor of the pact and that this "may lead to instability in the country."
The official added that al-Sistani considered parts of the agreement vague, particularly those pertaining to legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops and controls over the exit and entry into Iraq of American forces.
The agreement was backed by the government's Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni Arab blocs, but was opposed by the 30 lawmakers loyal to anti-American Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr as well as smaller groups.
A deadly rocket attack on the U.S.-protected Green Zone early Saturday bore the hallmarks of Shiite militiamen loyal to al-Sadr and may also have been linked to the security deal.
The rocket struck near a U.N. compound, killing two foreigners and wounding 15 people.
Al-Sistani also believed the pact did not offer sufficient guarantees to restore Iraq's full sovereignty or protect its assets, according to the official, who spoke from the cleric's office in the holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad on condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity.
He also thought al-Maliki's government was not strong enough to withstand "American pressure" when implementing the agreement. Al-Sistani, the official said, will leave "the acceptance or rejection of the agreement to the Iraqi people through the referendum."
The agreement gives a clear timeline for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, from the cities by June 30 and the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012. It gives Iraq strict oversight over their movements and operations as well as limited jurisdiction in the case of serious crimes committed by U.S. soldiers and civilian Pentagon employees when off-base and off-duty.
If the agreement is rejected by voters, Iraq's government would either have to re-negotiate it with the Americans or drop it altogether. Putting the agreement to a vote was one of several concessions made by the government to a group of lawmakers, most of whom are Sunnis, in exchange for their support for the pact.
Al-Sistani doesn't speak to reporters or give media interviews and communicates his views through edicts or leaks to the media by officials at his office.
He could have buried the agreement had he publicly spoken against it before Thursday's parliamentary vote. But the comments attributed to him Saturday clearly show he was unhappy about the margin of support it had won in the vote.
His comments are likely to be welcomed by the Sunnis who had campaigned hard to get the Shiites and Kurds to meet their demand to put the pact to a popular vote.
But al-Sistani's views leave al-Maliki and his Shiite allies in the awkward position of having to sell a deal that doesn't enjoy al-Sistani's full backing.
Saturday's rocket attack in the Green Zone occurred as al-Sadr's followers hoisted black flags on houses, mosques and Sadrist offices in their Baghdad stronghold to protest the U.S.-Iraqi pact.
Tech. Sgt. Chris Stagner, a U.S. military spokesman, said American explosives experts determined Iranian-made rockets were used in the Green Zone attack as well as another late Friday that targeted Camp Victory, the main military headquarters on Baghdad's western outskirts. That attack caused only minor damage, he said.
The U.S. military accuses Iran of providing weapons, funding and training to Shiite militants who attack U.S. forces in Iraq. Iran has consistently denied the charge.
The attack on the U.N. compound was the first in more than a month against the Green Zone _ a sprawling central Baghdad area that also houses the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government offices.
Rocket and mortar strikes against the U.S.-protected Green Zone have been common throughout the war but tapered off after al-Sadr declared a cease-fire, ending weeks of fighting between the Mahdi Army militia and U.S. and Iraqi troops in the spring.
The U.N. did not give names and nationalities of the dead pending notification of relatives. But the U.N. said no Iraqi or international U.N. staff members were among the casualties. The dead worked for a catering company, the U.N. said.
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