Iraq’s Cabinet today approved a deal with the United States that sets out a timetable for all US forces to leave the country within three years.
The text, which also allows Baghdad to order an inspection of any US aircraft or vehicle that it has reason to suspect of transporting unauthorised weapons or people in or out of Iraq, will be submitted to Parliament in the next 24 hours for a final vote.
It is unclear, however, whether MPs will give the status-of-forces agreement the green light, with some political factions opposed to any such accord and others demanding that the text be put to a public referendum.
In a sign of ongoing volatility on the ground, a suicide car bomb killed 15 people, including 7 policemen, and wounded 20 in a town north of Baghdad. The attack in Jalawla is the latest in a series of large bombings to rock Iraq in recent days.
Hoshyar Zebari, the Foreign Minister, is confident that the security agreement will be ratified before a major religious holiday from November 25.
“All the bets are on getting the approval,” Mr Zebari told The Times.
The deal must be signed by the end of the year when a United Nations’ mandate authorising the presence of foreign troops in Iraq is due to expire.
Mr Zebari added: “We think it is a good agreement for Iraq and the United States and something that we will be able to defend.”
He was speaking after a one-and-a-half-hour Cabinet meeting, where the pact was discussed and passed by 27 of the Cabinet’s 37 members, nine were absent.
The decision is a major breakthrough in a process that has dragged on for months, with both US and Iraqi negotiators forced to make compromises.
In the latest hurdle, Iraqi ministers sent the text back to the US side last month, demanding a number of amendments. As a result, the final draft contains two key changes, according to Fawzi Hariri, Minister for Industry and Minerals.
Firstly, the deadline for the withdrawal of some 146,000 US troops from Iraq is set for December 31, 2011. Soldiers will also pull out of towns and cities to larger bases outside these urban areas by next summer.
Secondly, the accord will enable a joint US-Iraqi team to co-ordinate an inspection of any US military vehicle that the Iraqi Government has reason to suspect is being used to move unauthorised entities, such as weapons or people.
“If we have intelligence that things are being smuggled in or out of the country, or persons are being taken in or out unauthorized … then the US side will agree for an inspection,” Mr Hariri told The Times.
Among other tricky areas, the accord gives Iraq the right to try US soldiers in the case of serious crimes committed off-duty and off-base. It also prohibits the US from using Iraqi territory to attack neighbouring countries such as Iran and Syria.
Mr Hariri was very upbeat on the passage of the document through the Cabinet and said he was “quietly confident” it will be approved by Parliament
“It is a great day for the standing of the new Iraq and the new democratically elected system of Government,” said the minister, a Kurd.
“We were occupied in 2003 and today we made an agreement with the occupying force under international law to depart our country having contributed to the stability of the country and the economy.”
It remains to be seen whether the draft will pass through the 275-strong Parliament, but it is sure to generate a lively debate.
Abdulkareem al-Samarrai, a senior member of the Sunni Muslim al-Tawafuq bloc said: “I believe there will be strong discussions about the agreement because the Parliament is not the same as the Cabinet … There are many blocs in the Parliament and not all of them have members in the Cabinet."
His political group wants the public to vote on whether or not to accept the pact in a referendum. “This agreement will affect Iraq for a long period, so it should be the people who decide their fate,” he added.
In contrast, Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr organisation, one of the main Shia Muslim groups in the ruling coalition, said this week Iraqi politicians felt it would be easier to accept the pact after the election of Barack Obama, who favours withdrawal.
Followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia cleric, however, remain opposed to the accord. Iran, which wields influence in Iraq, is also against it.
Failure to approve the pact by the end of the year will force the Iraqi Government to return to the United Nations Security Council to request an emergency extension of the troop mandate.
Britain must also sign an accord with Iraq on the status of its 4,100-strong contingent largely based in the south of the country.
Iraqi Cabinet agrees deal for US troop pullout by end of 2011