BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday attacked critics of a pact giving U.S. troops three years to leave Iraq, saying they wanted the Americans to stay just so they could agitate against them.
Iraq and the United States signed the agreement on Monday, but it must first pass in the Iraqi parliament to take effect.
The pact requires U.S. troops to leave in 2011, a timetable Washington accepted only after months of intense negotiations.
“Truly, they (critics) want these foreign forces to stay in Iraq because their presence on Iraqi soil has become for them, consciously or unconsciously, a political maneuver,” Maliki said in a speech on state television.
The speech was Maliki’s first comment on the security pact for weeks. He had remained silent during the final period of negotiations, leaving his own position a mystery until the cabinet approved the pact on Sunday.
The government believes it is likely to pass in parliament next week.
The main political groups in Maliki’s ruling coalition have lined up behind it, but followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr oppose it and Sunni Arab groups have reservations.
“In the past, some political factions carried banners demanding we schedule the withdrawal of foreign forces,” Maliki said in an apparent reference to the Sadrists.
“Regretfully, these same political factions turned away from the nation’s demand to achieve this withdrawal … which has become a reality in the content of the pact,” he said. “Some opposed it even before a first draft was written.”
Maliki said the cabinet had reservations about the pact, but saw it as the best way to return Iraq’s sovereignty.
“If we don’t sign … Iraq’s future will be uncertain.”
He added that the process of concluding the pact had been transparent and that it contained no secret clauses.
Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, signaled on Tuesday he would leave it to lawmakers to decide the fate of the pact, but only if it won wide backing from across Iraq’s sectarian and political divides.
“The representatives of the Iraqi people in parliament must take on a big responsibility … and each must be up to this historic responsibility before God and the people,” a statement from his office said.
U.S. officials have interpreted Sistani’s position as effectively stepping out of the political debate on the issue.
“Ayatollah Sistani’s views are that the political leaders need to take political decisions,” a senior U.S. official involved in the pact negotiations said on Monday.
Sistani, who was largely silent on the deal while it was being negotiated, wields vast influence on majority Shi’ites. A negative word from him could have been enough to sink the pact.
“What Sistani told political leaders is that it is necessary to end the foreign presence in any deal,” the statement said. It said the deal should be approved only if it meets two conditions: restoring Iraqi sovereignty and securing the agreement of Iraq’s main communities and political groups.
Sadr’s office interpreted that as meaning all blocs in parliament must back the pact, effectively giving opposition groups a veto.
“Sistani said in his statement it is necessary to have a national consensus on this agreement and not a simple majority,” said Hazim al-Araji, a senior Sadr aide.
Iran, which also has much influence among Iraqi Shi’ite politicians, opposes the pact.
Ali Larijani, Iran’s parliament speaker on Tuesday urged Iraqi lawmakers to resist the deal, saying Washington’s main aim was “strengthening comprehensive U.S. hegemony in Iraq.”