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Iraq Parliament Approves U.S. Security Pact

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. India is not the only place where we have significant news on this Thanksgiving morning. Iraq's parliament has approved the new security pact with the United States. This so-called status of forces agreement gives U.S. troops a mandate to remain in Iraq for the next three years. This accord was endorsed after the ruling coalition reached an understanding on a separate measure with opposition lawmakers. And we're going to get some explanation from NPR's Ivan Watson who's in Baghdad.

Ivan, what's been happening?

IVAN WATSON: Well, Steve, just even eight hours ago, it looked like this law - this vote would not take place. I had Iraqi lawmakers and American Embassy officials telling me that talks had broken down overnight, negotiations, and they were worried that they would spend Christmas, basically, still trying to hammer out some sort of a compromise between all the rival political parties here.

But apparently, at some point in the morning, the leaders of the many political blocs representing the Iraqi Shiite prime minister, the Sunni Arab political parties, and Kurds, were able to come to an agreement on this reform proposal. It's been described as a nonbinding resolution which addresses worries and fears of opposition parties about what would be the balance of power in Iraq after the U.S. military withdraws. And with agreement on that nonbinding resolution, a vote was allowed to go forward this afternoon.

INSKEEP: Now, you just talked about the balance of power after the U.S. forces leave. I've gotten the understanding from things that I've read that that was the real issue here. Is that correct? That it wasn't really about whether U.S. forces should leave tomorrow, or three years from now. It's who's going to be in control later.

WATSON: Absolutely. And that was the fear of these many different political parties. There's a lot of criticism, particularly from Sunni Arabs, that the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is simply too powerful, and that the withdrawal of American forces would leave him with too much control. They're really afraid of being persecuted. And so, that is what was holding this up. And Maliki's advisers say that this was, basically, arm twisting - that he couldn't get this treaty through without first agreeing to some of these compromises.

The agreement itself, Steve, calls for the U.S. military to pull back from Iraqi cities and towns by the end of June of next year and to complete - a complete withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011. It also puts American soldiers under the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts if they commit crimes, though there are some joint procedures that can be carried out with American officials as well. And it definitely changes the status of the U.S. forces here because it requires the American military to get, first, permission from the Iraqi government to carry out any operation in this country.

INSKEEP: You said withdrawing from cities and towns by June of 2009, eight or nine months from now. How does that match up with the timetable promised by President-elect Barack Obama when he was campaigning? He talked about most forces out of the country within sixteen months.

WATSON: Well, critics of this agreement here in Iraq, particularly Muqtada Al-Sadr's faction, they don't view this as a withdrawal treaty. They view this as extending the U.S. military presence here for another three years. So the scene in parliament was very raucous today where you had Shiite lawmakers, about 30 of them, while the vote was going on, while the majority of the Iraqi lawmakers were raising their hands in favor of this agreement, they were pounding their desks and holding up signs saying, no, no agreement. So they want the immediate withdrawal of forces, not 16 months like President-elect Obama said, not three years like this agreement says.

INSKEEP: OK. So Americans are asking, when do the troops come home? Iraqis are asking, how long are you going to stay? Different versions of the same question. NPR's Ivan Watson is in Baghdad. Ivan, thanks as always.

WATSON: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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