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Iraqi cabinet votes to keep US troops

A new pact that faces final approval from parliament will keep US troops in Iraq for up to three more years. By June 2009 US forces will pull back to major bases.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2008

All in favor: Iraqi’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (end of table, center) and members of his cabinet vote to approve a pact that will allow US military forces to remain in the country until 2011.

Iraqi Government/Reuters

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Iraq's cabinet overwhelmingly approved a security pact on Sunday that will enable a continued American military presence in Iraq for up to three more years, overcoming protests from hard-line Shiite nationalists and pressure from Iran to block the deal. It is expected to go before the parliament for final approval by the end of this month.

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Key revisions on sovereignty issues, demanded by Iraq and accepted by the US during months of fractious negotiations, led Iraq's highest-ranking Shiite religious figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to indicate over the weekend he would not object to the sweeping deal. Although the pact has experienced pockets of resistance, many Iraqis say the victory of US President-elect Barack Obama was a factor because of his promise to withdraw troops within 16 months of taking office.

The pact specifies that US units are to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 2009, with a final countrywide pullout by the end of 2011. US diplomats have grown increasingly desperate to conclude the deal before a United Nations mandate, under which US forces currently operate, expires at the end of this year.

Passage through parliament is expected, since the cabinet vote showed that key political blocs support the deal, said government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

"They all expressed a positive position because they consider it the best [agreement] possible, because it will manage and end the military presence and guarantee the complete withdrawal of the troops," said Mr. Dabbagh.

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been torn between early drafts of the deal that gave US forces carte blanche in Iraq and the need for continued US military help to keep security and build Iraqi forces.

The final withdrawal date is "not governed by circumstances on the ground. This date is specific and final," said Dabbagh.

The next steps would include approval by Iraq's three-person presidential council, and then a formal signing between Mr. Maliki and President Bush.

As the pact awaits parliamentary approval, reactions among Iraqis are mixed

Nazar Abu Ahmed, a Baghdad butcher says the passage of the pact will be a "big achievement" because it will bring an end to the occupation and prove that Iraq is strong enough to function without an American presence.