Iraqis doubt security agreement will end U.S. presence

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 19, 2008 

BAGHDAD — Iraqi and American leaders say that a new security pact will have all U.S. forces and military contractors out of Iraq by 2012, but 14th Ramadan Street is skeptical.

"Americans won't leave," said Mazin Ali, 30, a coach driver. "They are the decision makers in all Iraq. The decision is theirs."

He and others on 14th Ramadan Street, a commercial strip in Baghdad's Mansour district, see too many signs of a long-term American commitment to believe that the U.S. will withdraw on the timetable in the so-called status of forces agreement.

"It is not reasonable, because even if it was true and they would commit to the dates, there are great big loopholes," said Khalid Muhsin Abid, 57, pointing to the sprawling new, nearly $600 million U.S. Embassy compound on the Tigris River as evidence that the U.S. will stay.

Iraqi leaders, however, say that the agreement will end the U.S. occupation of their country that began in March 2003.

"The agreement states that American forces will withdraw from cities and villages by June 30th of 2009, which is a date that cannot be extended, and withdraw from all Iraqi soil, water and space by the 31st of December 2011, which is a date that cannot be extended," Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki stressed in a televised address Tuesday night.

In the Mansour district, however, residents were skeptical of the entire spectrum of politicians working on the deal, from the Americans to Maliki to the treaty's opponents.

"I have no wish to speak to any politician because I know they are not worthy of our trust," said one man who declined to give his name. "From the small things, you can tell. They say 'We'll give you kerosene in the winter,' and they don't. They say they will give you electricity, and they don't. How can they say 'We will give you security?'"

The agreement is now before Iraq's 275-member parliament, which cut off debate on the pact Wednesday during a hectic session at which a treaty opponent allied with radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr scuffled with Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari's bodyguards.

"It was an attack against a parliament member inside the parliament member hall by guards who were not allowed to be inside with guns," said the lawmaker, Ahmed al Massoudi, who approached Zebari and was pushed away by the foreign minister's guards.

The Sadrists, who reportedly shouted down a reading of the treaty Wednesday, want an immediate withdrawal of American forces or an agreement to put the withdrawal negotiations before the United Nations, Massoudi said.

Other parties want to amend the pact, although Iraqi law prohibits that. The Iraqi Cabinet approved the agreement on Sunday, and that made the agreement a final treaty between two states. Parliament can approve or reject it, but lawmakers can't modify it.

Nonetheless, several parties are pushing to get their views heard.

The Shiite Fadhila party announced that it wouldn't support the agreement unless its suggestions are considered. A Sunni bloc of parties also wants to amend some provisions in the treaty.

"We still have many notes, such as vague wording," said Noor al Deen al Hiyali from the Tawafuq alliance of Sunni parties. "I think the U.S. will not withdraw in 2011. I think the agreement will not be approved this week."

The treaty would replace the United Nations mandate that allows U.S. forces to operate in Iraq. That mandate is scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, ending the legal justification for the American presence in Iraq.

Many Iraqis consider the pact a done deal despite the parliament vote. They expect the treaty to pass.

"All of them, inside their hearts, they will accept it," said Haji Hattam, 50, referring to the lawmakers who want to scuttle the agreement. "They just show that they don't accept it."

Hattam fled to Mansour three years ago when sectarian violence forced him out of his Saidiyah neighborhood. He's most concerned about sectarian militias returning to power, and he fears that an abrupt exit of American forces would allow violence to spike.

"If they leave at an untimely point, the militias will become worse," said Hattam, who works with Ali the coach driver on 14th Ramadan Street.

Ali, however, would prefer a quicker American exit.

"The security situation will not be stable as long as the Americans are present," he said.

(Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee. McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Khadim contributed to this report.)

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Under Iraq troop pact, U.S. can't leave any forces behind

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Maliki on Iraq TV calls for passage of troop pact with U.S.

Iran softens resistance to U.S.-Iraq troop pact

Iraqi Cabinet approves accord setting U.S. troop withdrawal

Maliki tells Bush he now backs new U.S. troop deal

McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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