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.
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.
"Obama's election influenced the government to sign this agreement, because he promised the American people to withdraw the troops," says Mr. Ahmed. "I agree with this [pact]. If the Iraqi government didn't accept this pact, America would cause big troubles."
"The agreement is good," says Hibba Rahim, a government employee shopping in Baghdad with her father.
"The agreement will bring more security after the Americans make Iraqi forces stronger.... I think the Americans and Iraqis will destroy terrorism and two and a half years is enough time, because the Iraqi government is more than halfway to stability," she says.
A fierce critic of the deal, the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, called for protest demonstrations next Friday.
"We were surprised and shocked by this approval, which expresses devotion to the occupation by agreeing to the mandate the occupier wanted," said Hazem al-Araji, a senior Sadrist leader quoted by Agence France-Presse. "This approval underestimates the blood of the martyrs, the opinion of the clerics, and the popular rejection of this agreement."
"I don't agree with this decision," says Ahmed Nouri, owner of a mobile-phone shop, adding that he believes the recent jump in violence is linked to progress on the security talks.
The cabinet decision came amid a surge of car bombs and other attacks in recent weeks, marring dramatic security gains throughout 2008 that are thanks in large part to US-paid Sunni militias that took a stand against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a cease-fire, the dismantling of Mr. Sadr's anti-US Mahdi Army, and a surge of US troops. Shortly after the vote on Sunday, a suicide car bomb in Diyala Province killed 15, and there were sporadic attacks in Baghdad that left an unknown number of people dead.
"The explosions are caused by the Americans," says Mr. Nouri. "When Maliki didn't accept this agreement, the explosions returned to Baghdad. When Maliki agrees, the explosions will end. Either way, we will not get any benefit."
And many problems remain. The Sunni insurgency in Iraq is not yet defeated, but its continued existence may depend on the efforts by AQI to recruit disgruntled Sunni members of the government-funded community policing forces.
The agreement also allows Iraq to try US soldiers and contractors for crimes under certain circumstances, most notably when they are off-base or off-duty. It also binds the US not to use Iraq as a base from which to attack another country, such as Iran or Syria.
Iraq will take responsibility for 16,400 detainees, who will then be tried in the Iraqi justice system.
• Awadh al-Taiee contributed to this report from Baghdad.