Iraqi parliament approves pact to end U.S. occupation

BAGHDAD _ A resounding majority of Iraqi parliament members Thursday approved a security pact that calls for an end to the U.S. occupation by 2012, giving the measure a mandate of national unity that was considered critical for its long-term success.

The often divisive agreement passed parliament by 149-35, though 77 lawmakers didn’t vote. Most of them were absent from the session. A minority of them were there but refused to vote.

Few Iraqi leaders call the agreement a good deal for their country. Rather, they say it represents the best they could achieve at the bargaining table with the American government.

Its selling points for Iraqis are that it sets a definite timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces and gives the Iraqi government significantly more control over U.S. operations.

“The parliament made the right step, and it was the best choice,” said Taha Dria, a parliament member from a Shiite alliance that carried the pact to its successful vote.

The alternatives were to extend a United Nations mandate that limits Iraqi sovereignty or to have the Americans leave the country on Dec. 31 when that mandate expires.

Some Iraqi leaders feared those options. The U.N. mandate would put Iraq in a weak position globally, while an abrupt exit of American forces could trigger an outbreak of violence that Iraqi forces would struggle to contain.

“You cannot say this is a good deal,” Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said. “But the alternatives may be much worse.”

The Shiite-led ruling bloc made a number of concessions for political reform to win support from Tawafuq, the primary alliance of Sunni parties.

They included pledges to put the security pact before voters as a national referendum, to review policies for the release of detainees held in U.S. custody and to take steps to ensure judicial independence.

Tawafuq members said their efforts would strengthen the treaty over time.

"There is a growing feeling toward a referendum that will give the agreement credibility," said Tawafuq lawmaker Hashim al Tai.

Lawmakers from the Shiite parties disparaged those efforts as "trading" that was irrelevant to the security deal.

Still, the political back-and-forth paid off for the pact's supporters.

The vote appeared to meet the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who urged lawmakers to build a national accordance for the pact. His support often is considered essential for controversial political choices.

Some opposed the pact to the end. Members of parliament tied to radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr tried to shout down a reading of the agreement. Some of them carried signs reading, "No, No Agreement."

They accounted for 30 of the votes against the pact, arguing that any agreement with the United States is unacceptable.

Iraq has one last check on the agreement in its three-member presidency council, but it's unlikely that group would overturn the pact. Its members belong to parties that supported the agreement Thursday.

Parliament also passed a companion document that sets a framework for Iraq’s relationship with the United States. In it, the United States pledges to advise Iraq on its social services and to help Iraq transition to an economy that would be considered eligible for membership in the World Trade Organization.

"Taken together, these two agreements formalize a strong and equal partnership between the United States and Iraq,” U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, said in a joint statement. "They provide the means to secure the significant security gains we have achieved together and to deter future aggression."

(Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif. Bee)

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