BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went on national television Tuesday to defend a divisive pact giving U.S. forces a deadline of Dec. 31, 2011, to leave his nation as opponents reacted coolly to the plan, which is expected to go before Parliament today.
American and Iraqi officials say they are optimistic the agreement will win approval, but lawmakers from various factions have made clear they need convincing. Maliki himself described the agreement in less than effusive terms, portraying it as the best way for Iraq to unshackle itself from the U.N. mandate governing the U.S. presence.
That mandate, which has given American forces great autonomy since the March 2003 invasion, expires Dec. 31. The new deal, which would replace it, greatly reduces U.S. troops' autonomy.
Nonetheless, lawmakers loyal to Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who wants the 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to leave immediately, vowed to fight passage of the accord. Others, including some from the Parliament's main Sunni Arab bloc, called Tuesday for more U.S. concessions, particularly on the issue of Iraqi detainees held by American forces.
"We still have reservations," said Omar Abdul Sattar Karbouly, a lawmaker from the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the main Sunni bloc in Parliament. Karbouly said his group's demands, including the release of Iraqis held in U.S. custody, "were ignored by the government. But it's too early to say what will happen. We still have demands."
Mahdi Hafed, a member of the Iraqi National List bloc of Parliament, said his nationalist group had doubts about the pact. Hafed accused the Cabinet of pushing through the legislation too quickly and said the National List preferred an extension of the U.N. mandate for a year.
It's doubtful the pact's opponents could vote it down in Parliament. Maliki's Shiite bloc and Kurdish parties, which back it, hold more than half the legislative seats. But Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a member of the Sunni bloc, is part of the three-man Presidency Council that must sign the bill into law if it passes, and he could veto the measure.
Even without a veto, trying to enforce the law without broad-based support, particularly from Sunni lawmakers, could intensify Iraq's political unrest. And Maliki risks a backlash against his bloc in long-awaited provincial elections, which on Tuesday his Cabinet set for Jan. 31.