BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric indicated Friday he would not stand in the way a long-term U.S. security deal if it’s approved by the country’s democratic institutions, the prime minister said.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s office had no comment. Public opposition by the aging Iranian-born cleric could scuttle any agreement because of his vast influence within the majority Shiite community.
Meanwhile, thousands of supporters of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who opposes an accord to extend the U.S. presence beyond the end of the year, marched through eastern Baghdad to mourn the killing of a Sadrist lawmaker.
Following a 2 1/2 hour meeting in Najaf, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said al-Sistani believed the security agreement was the responsibility of “the Iraqis and the political groups” and that he would raise no objections to a deal “as long as it comes through official and state institutions.”
“He does not want anything forced or imposed on the Iraqi people,” al-Maliki said. “Rather he wants it to be done through the institutions. If the government and the parliament approve this, then the Sayyid (al-Sistani) will be convinced that is what the Iraqi people have decided.”
Al-Maliki also said al-Sistani believes “all the components” of Iraqi people should participate in the decision and in “resolving this matter through constitutional institutions.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they are close to an agreement that would replace the U.N. mandate for American-led forces in Iraq, which expires on Dec. 31. But the thorniest issue of legal jurisdiction and immunity for U.S. troops remains unresolved.
The prime minister said talks on the agreement are in the “final stages” and the U.S. had made “very big” concessions, including agreeing to pull U.S. forces back to their bases by the end of June and to a full withdrawal of U.S. forces by Dec. 31, 2011.
U.S. negotiators have not publicly confirmed agreement on a fixed withdrawal schedule, saying they want reductions linked instead to security conditions. However, one senior U.S. official confirmed Friday that the draft agreement contains those dates. The official, who requested anonymity to talk about the ongoing private negotiations, said the U.S. still believes that pulling the troops out of Iraq needs to be based on security conditions. But the official, who is close to the talks, added that the U.S. can live with the language in the draft agreement.
Al-Sistani traditionally avoids interfering in the day-to-day running of the government. However, his insistence that Iraq’s first constitution after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein be drafted by elected officials forced the United States to change its blueprint for the country’s transition to democratic rule.
Al-Sistani also forced the Americans to agree to the first post-Saddam elections in January 2005, even though many U.S. officials believed the country was too unstable for a meaningful balloting.
In Baghdad, thousands of Sadrists walked through the sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City behind a car carrying the casket of politician Saleh al-Auqaeili, killed by a roadside bomb Thursday. The body was then taken to Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, for burial.
A statement from al-Sadr read out loud during the Sadr City procession praised al-Auqaeili for dedicating himself to “getting the occupier out of Iraq,” using common rhetoric for the U.S. The cleric’s supporters oppose the negotiations for a security agreement, and some blamed U.S. and Iraqi forces for Thursday’s blast. The U.S. military blamed Shiite extremists.
Suspicion of activity by Shiite splinter groups, some with suspected of links to Iran, which has sheltered al-Sadr for nearly 18 months, raised fears of new internal Shiite bloodshed ahead of regional elections expected in January.
Clashes also erupted late Thursday in Sadr City when suspected Shiite militants fired small-arms and rocket-propelled grenades at U.S. and Iraqi forces, wounding one American soldier, the U.S. military said Friday.
Maj. Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Baghdad, said air support was called in as the Iraqi soldiers cleared homes and pursued the attackers. In Mosul, Ninevah province Gov. Duraid Mohammed Kashmoula said 80 Christian families have fled the northern city in the last week for Christian towns and villages nearby. That followed concerns raised by the killings of several Christians by gunmen this month. “The families have left fearing for their lives and no one can blame them,” Kashmoula said, adding police were implementing a plan to protect the minority religious community in the city.