BAGHDAD — Iraq's Cabinet approved a security pact Sunday that sets a timetable for the nearly complete withdrawal of American forces within three years, but the agreement faces an uncertain outlook in Iraq's parliament.
The largest Sunni party in Iraq, the Iraqi Islamic Party, wants the agreement to go to a nationwide referendum. Its affiliated parties complain that their efforts to amend the plan to require the release of detainees and to provide compensation for war victims were ignored by lawmakers who shaped the pact.
The accord, if passed by parliament, will sharply reduce the U.S. military's power in Iraq. American soldiers will be required to seek warrants from Iraqi courts to execute arrests and to hand over suspects to Iraqi authorities. U.S. troops will have to leave their combat outposts in Iraqi cities by mid 2009, withdrawing to bases.
Followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr view the agreement as an affirmation of the American occupation and oppose it outright.
Their dissent colors broad political momentum Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki built through the weekend after he reportedly gained new concessions from the U.S. government. It won support from 27 of the 28 Cabinet members. Nine members did not vote because they were traveling, a minister said.
Maliki declared his support for the agreement Friday, and helped persuade Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to give it the green light Saturday. Sistani is Iraq's leading religious authority and does not share Sadr's view of the security agreement.
Representatives of Maliki's Dawa party framed the deal as a means to end America's occupation of Iraq while phasing out assisting coalition forces.
It strengthens Iraqi controls over U.S. forces by:
• Requiring the United States to get Iraqi consent before searching homes.
• Giving Iraqis authority over the international zone that houses the centers of American power in Baghdad.
• Enabling Iraqis to search U.S. cargo.
• Prohibiting Americans from conducting raids in other countries from Iraqi soil.
• Eliminating the judicial immunity that applies to foreign contractors and U.S. soldiers working in Iraq under the occupation's current mandate.
If it passes parliament, the agreement would replace a United Nations mandate that allows American forces to operate in Iraq through Dec. 31.
Maliki's delegates stressed that the agreement leaves no room to extend the American presence in Iraq beyond Dec. 31, 2011. It calls on American units to pull out of Iraqi cities by June 2009.
"The total withdrawal will be completed by Dec. 31, 2011. This is not governed by circumstances on the ground," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said, pointedly rejecting the more conditional language that the U.S. government had earlier sought in the accord.
Dabbagh noted his government could cancel the agreement if its own forces became capable of controlling security at an earlier point.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, have pointed out that there is nothing stopping the next Iraqi government from asking some U.S. troops to stay on. The Iraqi military is years away from being able to defend its country, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
Despite the approval by the Iraqi Cabinet, a battle awaits inside the 275-member parliament. Hadi al-Ameri, a leading Shiite lawmaker, said the only way the agreement could pass was with consensus among the major political blocs.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's party was still calling Sunday to put the agreement before voters as a referendum. Nawal al-Sammaraie, a member of his party and a state minister for women's affairs, was the only Cabinet minister who voted against the security pact.
"We are afraid that even if the agreement passes in parliament it could be (opposed) by Tariq al-Hashimi," Ameri said, speaking for a Shiite coalition called the United Iraqi Alliance. "The Americans put the ball in our field today. We gave it a strong kick, and now the ball is in the field of the Americans and the Sunnis. We are waiting to see what they do."
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.