Iraq parliament debates security pact

November 20, 2008 5:25:35 PM PST
Iraq's parliament persevered Thursday in its debate on a proposed security agreement with the United States despite raucous attempts by opposition lawmakers to disrupt proceedings ahead of next week's vote on the deal. The measure, which would keep U.S. forces in Iraq for another three years, has a good chance of passing in the Shiite-led parliament. But the uproar created by loyalists of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr suggests the pact could remain divisive as the country struggles for reconciliation after years of war.

If al-Sadr's group and other legislators opposed to the pact lose by a thin margin in the vote planned for Monday, they might attempt to turn their anti-American message into a defining issue in provincial elections on Jan. 31 and general elections late in 2009. His followers planned a major rally Friday in central Baghdad to protest the security deal, which they view as a surrender to U.S. interests.

The demonstration slated for Firdous Square, where U.S. Marines tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein in one of the iconic images of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, is certain to heighten tension in the streets. But the agitation on Thursday was focused on parliament in the heavily protected Green Zone, where opposition lawmakers shouted and pounded desks in a second day of chaotic proceedings.

"The agreement ushers in a new occupation of Iraq, the duration of which we cannot tell," said Ajeel Abdul-Hussein, the senior Sadrist lawmaker.

In fact, the terms of the pact establish for the first time a clear timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

They must be out of cities by June 30, 2009, and the entire country by the end of 2011. It would also give Iraqi authorities far more oversight over the U.S. military presence than they currently have.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has publicly defended the pact twice this week, first in a nationally televised address Tuesday and then in a news conference Thursday at which he said the deal would eventually lead to full sovereignty.

Al-Maliki noted that the pact allowed for the restoration of Iraq's control of its airspace. As it stands now, he said, even his own plane or one carrying the Iraqi president needs clearance from the Americans to fly.

The withdrawal timetable before parliament could be moved up, but delaying the departure dates is nonnegotiable, al-Maliki said.

He warned the alternative to the pact - a renewal or an extension of the U.N. mandate providing legal cover for U.S. forces in Iraq - is worse. The mandate expires Dec. 31.

"The danger of an extension is the removal of Iraq's sovereignty and facing the same problem again, which will drive us back to searching for another agreement" with the Americans, al-Maliki said.

On Thursday, Sadrist lawmakers made as much noise as possible in an attempt to drown out a lawmaker reading the agreement aloud.

Shouting matches broke out, but the chaos died down after 20 minutes.

Parliament eventually completed the reading. It was the last step before opening debate on the pact, though disruptions so far could delay Monday's planned vote by a day or two.

Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the deal would be acceptable only if approved by a wide margin in parliament. Al-Sistani enjoys enormous influence among Iraq's Shiite majority.

The Cabinet approved the agreement last weekend, meaning the pact stands a good chance of passage in the 275-seat parliament where the government's parties dominate. But for al-Maliki's Dawa party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, its senior government partner, the margin of support is almost as important as the victory itself. A narrow vote for approval will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the new terms governing the U.S. troop presence.

Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite lawmaker close to al-Maliki, said it was necessary for American forces to remain in Iraq because of the insurgency even if the government, like opposition lawmakers, saw the U.S. presence as "unwanted."

If the agreement passes the legislature, it still requires the ratification of the president and his two deputies.

Also Thursday, the U.S. military said a leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, blamed in the 2004 abduction and murder of Army reservist Staff Sgt. Matt Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, had been killed.

The military said Hajji Hammadi also was the mastermind of a June 26 attack that killed three U.S. Marines, two interpreters and more than 20 Iraqis in western Anbar province.

It said U.S. forces killed Hammadi and another armed insurgent on Nov. 11 in Baghdad.

In a separate development, the military said an American Marine died as the result of a non-combat-related incident west of Baghdad. The Marine was not identified pending notification of relatives.

The death raises to at least 4,201 members of the U.S. military who have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.


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