Iraq's religious leaders criticize security agreement

BAGHDAD — Influential religious leaders across Iraq are voicing reservations about a U.S.-Iraq security agreement that allows Americans to remain in the country for another three years.

Some are cautious in their criticisms. Others — ones who generally are tied to political parties that fought the pact — forcefully condemn the treaty.

Their comments filtered out Saturday as Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki met with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of multinational forces in Iraq, to plan for the treaty's implementation.

The pact, which cleared Iraq's parliament Thursday and sets a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, entails some major changes in authority between U.S. and Iraqi officials.

One clause would require the U.S. to consult with Iraqis before conducting military operations. Another paves the way for the release of some 16,000 detainees in U.S. custody. Another would have the U.S. turn over its control of the International Zone in central Baghdad to Iraqi leaders.

Religious leaders, however, appear generally skeptical that the pact will return sovereignty while hard-line clerics oppose the whole idea of Iraq's negotiating with the United States over its independence.

A representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the nation's leading Shiite cleric, suggested the 149-35 vote of approval in Iraq's parliament wasn't broad enough to demonstrate national consensus.

Ahmad al Safi al Najafi speaking on behalf of Sistani said the agreement, which takes effect Jan. 1, wouldn't ensure Iraqi sovereignty.

He said Iraqis would have a chance to make their opinions known when the pact goes before voters as a national referendum in July.

That was one of the compromises the ruling Shiite government made to build a broader majority for the agreement. Sunni parties insisted that all Iraqis should vote on the pact.

"The majority of parliament voted for the (agreement), but more than a few people in parliament rejected it," Najafi was quoted in a Baghdad newspaper as saying at Friday prayers. "So we say Iraqi people will be the judge to agree or to reject though the referendum in the middle of next year."

Anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr harshly condemned the pact as an infringement on Iraqi sovereignty. Thirty members of parliament in the Sadr party voted unanimously against the deal.

Sadr's representatives now say they'll shut their offices across the country for three days of "mourning."

"We pay our condolences to the Iraqi people for the vote for the pact of humiliation and disgrace in the catastrophe of black Thursday," said Sheik Muhanad Al Gharawi, a Sadr delegate.

Ayatollah Muhammad al Yacoubi on Saturday joined Sadr in rejecting the pact. Yacoubi is close to the Fadilah party, which refused to vote on the security agreement in parliament.

In Iran, Ayatollah Ahmad Ali Jannati said the United States had coerced Iraq into the arrangement.

"The deal was not signed naturally because the Iraqi party was like the person on whose head a dagger was held, ordering him to sign otherwise his head will be slashed," he was quoted as saying in Iran's state news service.

Meanwhile Saturday, a rocket fired into the International Zone about 6:15 a.m. struck near a United Nations building, killing two and injuring 15 members of a catering crew that supported the UN compound.

The UN reduced its role in Iraq after an Aug. 19, 2003 attack that killed 22, including UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. It has taken a more active role lately, including signing an August pact that spelled out its plans to assist Iraq.

(Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee)


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