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Iraqi parliament debates security pact

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[November 17, 2008]  BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqi lawmakers Monday debated a pact with the United States that will allow U.S. forces to remain for three more years, and neighboring Syria criticized the security agreement as a virtual surrender to American interests.

More than two-thirds of the 275-seat legislature attended the session, raising confidence that parliament will be able to muster a quorum for the vote on Nov. 24. The Cabinet overwhelmingly approved the security pact Sunday, meaning the political parties in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition government are expected to have similar success in securing parliamentary support.

InsuranceWhile U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker described the Iraqi Cabinet's approval of the pact as "historic" at a time when security has improved dramatically, a top Syrian official dismissed the deal as an "award to the occupiers" of the war-devastated country.

"We shouldn't give occupiers any reward or prize ... . On the contrary, they should apologize for the damage they have caused," Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said in Damascus.

Iran and Syria, longtime adversaries of Washington, have said an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces would be the best solution for Iraq, fearing threats to their security and regional influence. The Iraqi government sought to allay their fears, amending the security pact to prohibit the Americans from using Iraqi territory to attack neighboring nations.

Iranian leaders vigorously opposed the pact, but have yet to comment on its approval by the Iraqi Cabinet. Iranian state television declared the pact was a victory for al-Maliki because he won concessions from the Americans.

The Cabinet's approval came one day after the country's most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said he would not object to the pact if approved by a comfortable majority in the legislature.

That removed a major hurdle in the way of the agreement since the Iranian-born cleric could have buried the deal had he publicly opposed it and Shiite parties said they would not sign off on the document before the cleric stated his support for it.

Crocker conducted a largely symbolic signing of the deal with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

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"At a time when U.S. forces will continue to withdraw from Iraq, in recognition of the superlative security gains of the last few years, our relationship will develop in many other important ways," Crocker said. "This was a complicated and tough negotiation, and I think all Iraqis can be very proud of the substantial achievement that their negotiating team has registered."

Lawmakers loyal to Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the pact, attended Monday's parliamentary session. Al-Sadr, who has about 30 legislators in his camp, has urged parliament to reject the agreement and has threatened to resume attacks on U.S. forces if they don't immediately begin withdrawing from Iraq.

Al-Sadr's fighters have battled the Americans over the years, but he declared a cease-fire last year and disbanded most of his militia. Al-Sadr, who is based in Iran, has called for a protest in a central Baghdad square on Friday.

Under the agreement, U.S. forces must vacate Iraqi cities by June, leave Iraq by the end of 2011 and grant Iraqi authorities extensive power over the operations and movements of American forces. The deal would replace a U.N. mandate governing their presence in Iraq that expires Dec. 31.

[Associated Press; By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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