BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq’s parliament will vote Wednesday on the proposed Iraq-U.S. security agreement that would allow American troops to stay in Iraq for three more years, the legislature’s speaker said.
Mahmoud al-Mashhadani made the announcement at the end of a six-hour debate on the agreement in which at least two dozen lawmakers spoke. He said a vote could be held earlier if the country’s main political groups reached agreement on the deal earlier than Wednesday.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government negotiated the deal over several months, has said he wanted the deal approved by consensus, and the country’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has indicated that the deal would be acceptable only if it wins passage in the legislature by a big majority.
The vote was originally scheduled for Monday, but many lawmakers who spoke in Saturday’s session, including some from the ruling Shiite bloc, said they objected to the relatively short time that the government gave them to study the deal.
Al-Maliki’s Cabinet approved the pact last Sunday and distributed copies to lawmakers the following day. Wednesday will likely be the last parliamentary session before the 275-seat legislature goes into recess for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, which falls in the first week of December. Some lawmakers will then travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, denying the house a quorum.
During Saturday’s debate, a senior Shiite lawmaker close to al-Maliki said parliament should pass the deal as long as the government promises to revoke or change it if implementation is deemed harmful to Iraqis.
The comment by Khalid al-Attiyah, deputy parliament speaker, came as the government struggled to lay the groundwork for the legislature’s passage of the deal.
The pact has a good chance of winning at least a narrow victory in the fractious legislature, but a close ballot could deepen Iraq’s political divisions and deal a serious setback to reconciliation efforts.
Saturday’s debate was shown live on national television. There were brief, heated exchanges on procedural questions, but the session was orderly, in contrast to chaotic scenes in earlier sessions when opposition lawmakers loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr disrupted debate.
Al-Attiyah drew mild applause when he said the prime minister should overturn or amend the security deal if “its implementation is found to be harmful to the interests of the Iraqi people.”
If the accord passes the legislature, it will go to President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies for ratification. Each has veto power.
Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, meanwhile, said the deal was necessary because the premature departure of U.S. troops would expose Iraqis to serious security threats.
“The alternative is much worse than the agreement,” he said, referring to the renewal of a U.N. mandate under which the U.S.-led foreign forces are operating in Iraq. That mandate expires Dec. 31. The proposed security pact would set a firm timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, from all cities by next June 30 and the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012, and put American military operations under strict Iraqi oversight.
It also would give Iraqi officials limited powers to prosecute U.S. soldiers and civilian Pentagon employees in the case of serious crimes committed off-base and off-duty. And it would bar U.S. forces from using Iraqi territory to launch attacks against neighboring nations.
Several lawmakers said it made no sense to approve a deal with a U.S. administration that has less than two months in office and that a better option would be to negotiate a new pact once Barack Obama becomes president.
Parliament is being asked only to approve or reject the agreement, and lawmakers cannot seek amendments.
With all votes from parliament’s main Shiite and Kurdish blocs, the senior partners in al-Maliki’s coalition, the government can muster just over 140 members in Wednesday’s vote. That would be only a few votes above the simple majority threshold.
It is unclear how the government’s Sunni Arab partners, the Iraqi Accordance Front, will vote. Its 44 lawmakers could give the government the respectable margin of victory it seeks, but leaders of the bloc are making their approval conditional on reforms to give their minority community a bigger say in running the country.
Lawmaker Abdul-Kareem al-Samarie of the Accordance Front sharply criticized the deal as an infringement on the country’s sovereignty and questioned the U.S. commitment to defend Iraq in the case of an internal or outside threat.
Another accord lawmaker, Salim Abdullah, repeated demands to put the agreement to a national vote in a referendum, but also suggested the deal could be passed now and revoked if a majority of Iraqis reject it.
The Sadrists, who have 30 lawmakers, are leading the camp that opposes the security deal.