Iraq factions agree to vote on U.S. pact -- lawmaker

BAGHDAD Thu Nov 27, 2008 5:27pm IST

U.S. soldiers take position beside their armoured vehicle after a bomb attack in central Baghdad November 26, 2008. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

U.S. soldiers take position beside their armoured vehicle after a bomb attack in central Baghdad November 26, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's ruling Shi'ite coalition reached a deal on Thursday with two Sunni Arab factions that were holding up a vote on a pact paving the way for U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, a parliamentary official said.

Disagreements between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition and the Sunni Arab blocs have been holding up a parliamentary vote on the issue.

The deal will pave the way for U.S. troops to withdraw by the end of 2011, bringing in sight an end to a U.S. military presence that has continued since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

"An agreement has been reached between all blocs and we expect to vote ... on the ... troop withdrawal pact and on a political reform paper," parliament's first deputy speaker Khalid al-Attiya told Reuters.

He said lawmakers were now due to vote at 3 p.m. (1200 GMT).

Maliki's Shi'ite-led government and its Kurdish partners, who together hold a majority of Iraq's 275 parliamentary seats, probably could push the pact through by themselves, but they need a broad consensus to satisfy Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Once-dominant minority Sunni Arabs were concerned that the departure of U.S. troops might curb their influence in Shi'ite-led Iraq, and they had listed reforms they wanted adopted before giving their approval.

Legislators agreed to meet a demand from the two main Sunni Arab blocs that the pact be put to a referendum next year.

But the Sunnis backed down on two other conditions, Attiya said. These included reforms that would cease the pursuit and prosecution of former members of Saddam's Baath party and abolish the court that condemned the dictator to death.

Iraqis have been glued to their television screens while parliament haggles. State television flashes extracts from the deal almost hourly while newspapers have splashed the latest news on pact negotiations across their front pages for days.

"We want it to pass as soon as possible so there will be stability," said electrical appliance shopkeeper Abu Ali, 55.

Followers of the firebrand Shi'ite Moqtada al-Sadr oppose a deal with the Americans and have vowed to fight it.

The deal replaces an expiring U.N. mandate. It gives Iraq authority over U.S. troops, makes them liable for some crimes committed when they are off duty, and reins in private security firms.

The 150,000-odd American troops will have to quit the towns by mid-2009, and leave Iraq entirely by the end of 2011.

That will boost Maliki, who will get three more years of U.S. support while claiming accolades for ending the occupation.

(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Wisam Mohammed and the Washington Bureau)

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