After months of painstaking negotiations between Baghdad and Washington, the Iraqi cabinet on Sunday approved a bilateral agreement allowing US troops to remain in the country for three more years.
The accord still needs approval by Iraq’s parliament, but the cabinet vote indicated that most of the significant Iraqi parties supported it.
An Iraqi government spokesman portrayed the pact as closing the book on the occupation that began with the US-led invasion in 2003.
“The total withdrawal will be completed by December 31 2011. This is not governed by circumstances on the ground,” Ali al-Dabbagh told Iraqi reporters, pointedly rejecting the more conditional language that the US government had earlier sought in the accord.
US officials have pointed out that there is nothing stopping the next Iraqi government from asking some US troops to stay on.
The Iraqi military is years away from being able to defend the country from external attack, according to both US and Iraqi officials.
Still, there is no doubt that the accord, if passed by parliament, will sharply reduce the US military’s power in Iraq.
US soldiers will be required to seek warrants from Iraqi courts to execute arrests and to hand over suspects to Iraqi authorities. US troops will have to leave their combat outposts in Iraqi cities by mid-2009, withdrawing to bases.
The US government has lobbied hard for the status-of-forces agreement, which would replace a United Nations mandate authorising the US presence that expires on December 31. Without some legal umbrella, the 150,000 US forces would have to end their operations in Iraq in a few weeks’ time, military officials said.
The Iraqi spokesman said his government could cancel the agreement if its own forces became capable of controlling security at an earlier point.
“That matches the vision of US president-elect Barack Obama,” Mr Dabbagh said, referring to the Democrat’s plan to withdraw US combat troops within 16 months.
While the Cabinet vote indicated that Nouri alMaliki, the prime minister, had rounded up the support of most of Iraq’s large parties, final passage of the accord was not guaranteed, politicians said.
One issue is timing. The notoriously slow-moving Iraqi parliament is scheduled to adjourn on November 25 for a three-week break to allow lawmakers to make the Hajj pilgrimage.
Another wild card is the position of the Sunni parties. The Shiite-led government has sought consensus so the treaty would not become a political football in the run-up to provincial elections scheduled for late January. “There will be a problem if the Sunni bloc decides to abstain. That is quite critical,” said Haidar al-Abadi, a member of the prime minister’s Dawa party.
In Washington the White House described the Iraqi cabinet agreement as “an important and positive step”.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopolu
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