BAGHDAD – Iraq’s parliament approved Thursday a security pact with the United States that lets American troops stay in the country for three more years — setting a clear timetable for a U.S. exit for the first time since the 2003 invasion.
The vote in favor of the pact was backed by the ruling coalition’s Shiite and Kurdish blocs as well as the largest Sunni Arab bloc, which had demanded concessions for supporting the deal. The haggling among the political factions highlighted sectarian-based tensions that hinder reconciliation efforts, nearly six years after Saddam Hussein’s ouster.
The Shiite bloc agreed to a Sunni demand that the pact be put to a referendum by July 30, meaning the deal must undergo an additional hurdle next year. It took nine months of difficult talks for U.S. and Iraqi negotiators to craft the agreement.
Under the agreement, U.S. forces will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 and the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012. Iraq will have strict oversight over U.S. forces.
Lawmakers voted with a show of hands, and an exact breakdown of the parliamentary vote was not immediately available. But parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said an “overwhelming majority” of lawmakers who attended the session voted in favor. Parliament’s secretariat, which counted lawmakers as they entered the chamber, said 220 out of 275 legislators attended.
“This is a historic day for parliament,” said Deputy Speaker Khalid al-Attiyah, a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “More than three-quarters of those present at today’s session voted for the agreement, and that was not expected.”
Al-Maliki appeared to have won the comfortable majority that he sought in order to give the agreement additional legitimacy.
The country’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had indicated that the deal would be acceptable only if passed by a comfortable majority.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh urged those who opposed the agreement to accept the decision by the parliament.
“Iraqis should now feel that they have the control and they have to take the full responsibility” for security, he told Associated Press Television News. “Even those who reject this share the responsibility in order to reform the country and in order to stabilize the country.”
Sunni lawmakers, whose sectarian group dominated Iraq under Saddam but now struggles for influence with the Shiite-led government, said they were reluctant to support the security deal.
“Our conditional approval does not mean that we do not have reservations on many causes mentioned in the agreement and we do not have fear about the future implementation of the agreement,” said lawmaker Salim Abdullah, who is also a spokesman for the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the 44-seat Iraqi Accordance Front.
A bloc of 30 lawmakers loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who wants U.S. forces to leave Iraq immediately, chanted protests and hoisted banners that said “No, no to the agreement” during the 25-minute session.
“We offer our condolences to the Iraqi people for this humiliating pact and will continue our popular rejection of it,” said Sheik Hazim al-Aaraji, an aide to al-Sadr in the southern city of Najaf.
Al-Sadr’s militia have fought U.S. forces in uprisings over the years, but the cleric largely disbanded his fighters and he does not appear to pose as much of a security threat as in the past. Al-Sadr is currently in Iran.
The security deal must now be ratified by the three-member Presidential Council, which is expected to approve it.
The security pact has been described by al-Maliki as a path toward full sovereignty.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top American commander in Iraq, welcomed the Iraqi parliament’s approval of the pact, which is divided into two agreements governing security, economics, culture and other areas of cooperation.
“Taken together, these two agreements formalize a strong and equal partnership between the United States and Iraq,” they said in a statement. “They provide the means to secure the significant security gains we have achieved together and to deter future aggression.”
The vote had been delayed by one day because of the disputes among the political factions, which have hampered reconciliation efforts after years of war.
The Shiite and Kurdish blocs agreed to a Sunni demand for a national referendum on the pact, but the Sunnis did not get two concessions: the repeal of a law designed to weed out former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, and the dissolution of a special court that tried the dictator and top officials of his regime. Saddam was sentenced to death and executed in 2006.
Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds, who account for 80 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people, were the target of massacres and other atrocities under Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime. Grievances run deep, and caving in to Sunni demands on the special court and the Baathist law could have produced voter backlash ahead of provincial and general elections in 2009.