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Iraqi lawmakers give US security pact the nod

The pact sets out a three-year timetable for US troop withdrawal. A public referendum on it will be held in July.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 28, 2008



BAGHDAD

For more than a year after he was first appointed Iraqi Foreign Minister in 2003, Hoshyar Zebari recalls, he was routinely stopped by junior American soldiers saying that he was not authorized to enter the Green Zone. "I'm the foreign minister!" he would tell them.

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Thursday, as he prepared to celebrate Parliament's passage of an agreement that essentially transforms the US role from one of occupier to invited guest, he sees progress. "We've come a long, long way," says Mr. Zebari.

The historic pact, passed by 149 of Iraq's 275 parliamentarians, calls for America's 140,000 troops to pull back to bases outside Iraq's cities by next June and leave the country entirely within three years. But it also mandates a public referendum on the deal next July. If Iraqis reject it, US forces could be asked to leave much sooner than 2011.

The US and Iraq began negotiations more than a year ago on the so-called Status of Forces Agreement as well as a broader strategic framework governing US-Iraqi relations. With an insurgency still raging in parts of the country, the United States felt it had enough leverage to continue to demand unprecedented powers. Under rules imposed in 2003, for example, Iraq was the only country in the world where US contractors were exempt from local laws, US officials said.

A year of tough negotiations with an increasingly confident Iraqi government resulted in an agreement more in line with security pacts with other countries. Now, Iraq may prosecute coalition contractors and soldiers for crimes committed off-base and off-duty. It also must approve U.S. military operations.

"This points us to a future more toward sovereignty, independence, and national political will," says Zebari, who was the chief negotiator of the pact.

Thursday's agreement replaces UN Security Council authorization for the US presence here, which has been renewed at Iraq's request every year since after former President Saddam Hussein was toppled in the 2003 US invasion. When the current mandate ends Dec. 31, Iraq will no longer officially be considered a threat to international peace and security for the first time since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The debate in parliament over the past week shined a spotlight on Iraq's boisterous, burgeoning democracy, forged against the backdrop of continuing violence and the destruction wrought by five years of war. It also highlighted fractures in Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki's governing coalition.

One of the sessions ended with some lawmakers fleeing the chamber as a member of the political bloc loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr tussled with one of the foreign minister's Kurdish bodyguards. On Thursday, members of the Sadr bloc, which oppose any agreement with the US and boycotted the vote, tried to disrupt the proceedings by banging on desks and chanting "No, no to the occupiers."

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