BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s cabinet approved a pact on Sunday that will let U.S. troops stay in the country until 2011, setting a final date to end a military presence that began with the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The pact, reached after nearly a year of grueling negotiations with Washington, must still be approved by the Iraqi parliament, but Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said he expected that to happen by the end of the month.
It gives a closing date to pull out troops from a war that has been one of the defining political issues in the United States, the Middle East and around the globe for much of the past decade. “The total withdrawal will be completed by Dec. 31, 2011. This is not governed by circumstances on the ground. This date is specific and final,” cabinet spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. He said the pact was supported by 27 of 28 cabinet members who attended a meeting to vote on it. Nine were not present.
Dabbagh said most major factions in parliament had indicated their support. Deputy parliament speaker Khaled al-Attiya said a first reading would be held in the chamber on Monday.
The draft would place the U.S. force in Iraq — which now numbers about 150,000 — under the authority of the Iraqi government for the first time, replacing a mandate enacted by the U.N. Security Council after the U.S. invasion.
It calls for U.S. forces to leave the streets of Iraq’s towns and villages by the middle of 2009. Dabbagh said U.S. forces would hand over their bases to Iraq during the course of 2009 and lose the authority to raid Iraqi homes without an order from an Iraqi judge and permission of the government.
The White House welcomed the cabinet decision as a “positive step” on Sunday, while noting that the process was not yet complete. “We remain hopeful and confident we’ll soon have an agreement that serves both the people of Iraq and the United States well and sends a signal to the region and the world that both our governments are committed to a stable, secure and democratic Iraq,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Passage in Iraq’s parliament seems likely although not assured. Followers of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr oppose the agreement, and the largest Sunni Arab bloc says it wants it put to a referendum.
The Iraqi government has grown increasingly confident of its own ability to keep order, as violence has dropped dramatically in the country over the past year. Iraqi forces now have command in all but five of Iraq’s 18 provinces, and led a crackdown on Shi’ite militias earlier this year.
October saw the lowest monthly death toll from violence since the invasion, according to Iraqi government statistics. But Iraqi officials acknowledge they still need U.S. military support against Sunni militants in Baghdad and four northern provinces, as well as aid in logistics and fire power.
A suicide car bomber struck a police checkpoint in volatile Diyala province north of Baghdad on Sunday, killing 15 people, and wounding 20, police said.
Iraqi leaders consider the firm deadline for withdrawal to be a negotiating victory. The outgoing U.S. administration of President George W. Bush long opposed setting any timetable for its troops to withdraw, but relented in recent months.
The latest draft, submitted by Washington after the Iraqi cabinet balked at an earlier version last month, even changes the agreement’s title to refer explicitly to the withdrawal.
Sadr’s followers remain implacable foes of the pact, despite the withdrawal deadline which was their main demand. “Today the cabinet has agreed to put Iraq under the mandate of the American occupation forces. It is a deeply regrettable and sorrowful thing,” Ahmed al-Masoudy, spokesman for Sadr’s bloc in parliament, said. “We are calling upon the Iraqi people to stage demonstrations and sit-ins to stop this farce.”
The Accordance Front, the largest Sunni Arab bloc, wants a referendum on the pact, and spokesman Salim al-Jubouri said the group would try to block it in parliament.
Some Iraqi politicians have said it is easier to endorse the pact since the election this month of Barack Obama — who favors withdrawal — to replace Bush. Obama’s own plan calls for all combat troops to be withdrawn by the middle of 2010.
Dabbagh said Washington had promised Obama would abide by the agreement, which the Bush administration says does not need the approval of the U.S. Congress.
Iran, which has influence among Iraqi Shi’ites, has also opposed the pact. Tehran did not comment, but an analyst on Iranian state television signaled Tehran might ease its stance, calling the draft a victory for the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.