Sun Nov 16, 3:22 AM ET
Iraqis clean up the site of a car bombing in central Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008. A bomb in a parked car exploded near the National Theater in the mainly Shiite district of Karradah on Saturday evening, killing at least five and wounding 23, according to police and hospital officials.(AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
BAGHDAD - Iraq's Cabinet on Sunday approved a security pact with the United States that will allow American forces to stay in Iraq for three years after their U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
The decision followed months of difficult negotiations and, pending parliamentary approval, will remove a major point of contention between the two allies. Parliament's deputy speaker, Khalid al-Attiyah, said he expected the 275-member legislature to begin debating the document this week and vote on it by Nov. 24.
The U.S. government agreed last week to an Iraqi request to amend the draft. The amendment removed what al-Attiyah said was ambiguous language that could allow U.S. forces not to adhere to a timeline for their withdrawal from Iraqi cities by the end of June and from the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012.
The Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni parties making up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government dominate parliament, so there is a good chance that the legislature will approve the security pact.
The final draft of the agreement is designed to meet Iraqi concerns over its sovereignty and its security needs as it continues to grapple with a diminished but persistent insurgency.
It provides for the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and gives Iraq the right to try U.S. soldiers and defense contractors in the case of serious crimes committed off-duty and off-base. It also prohibits the U.S. from using Iraqi territory to attack Iraq's neighbors, like Syria and Iran.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said all but one of the 28 Cabinet ministers who attended Sunday's meeting, in addition to al-Maliki, voted for the pact in a show of hands.
"The government wanted to make sure that the draft of the agreement safeguards the interests of Iraq and its people, with clear and complete timetables," Iraqi government spokesman al-Dabbagh said after the Cabinet's session. "It is not the ideal solution for the Iraqi side or the American side, but conditions on the ground dictated it."
The Cabinet has 37 members and it was not immediately clear why some ministers stayed away. Several of them were believed to be traveling abroad.
"This is an important and positive step," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Adam Ereli.
Violence continues to plague parts of Iraq despite a dramatic improvement in security over the past year, and the attacks underscore the notion that Iraq's nascent security forces still need U.S. backing.
Hours after the Cabinet approved the security pact, seven people died and seven others were wounded in a suicide car bombing at a police checkpoint in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, according to police Col. Ahmed Khalifa, chief of Jalula police station. The dead included one police officer.
The U.S. military said the attack in Jalula occurred at a police station and that four police and six civilians died. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy, nor any indication that the attack was linked to the Cabinet vote.
And earlier Sunday, a roadside bomb in a Sunni enclave of Baghdad killed three people and wounded seven at a checkpoint belonging to U.S.-backed fighters, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Two of those killed were members of the local Awakening Council, or Sahwa, one of several names used to refer to the Sunni insurgents and tribesmen who revolted against al-Qaida in Iraq. Sahwa fighters have been targeted by al-Qaida militants since they changed sides in late 2006, with scores of their leaders assassinated and their checkpoints and headquarters bombed.
Proponents of the security pact with the Americans, including al-Maliki's interior and defense ministers, say a continued U.S. military presence is needed until Iraq's security forces can take charge of security in the war-devastated nation.
Parliament is due to go into recess at the end of the month or in early December because of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, when scores of lawmakers travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the annual pilgrimage. Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani canceled all leave for lawmakers and suspended foreign and out-of-town visits to ensure that the house secures a quorum for the security pact vote, al-Attiyah told a news conference.
"I'm optimistic that this agreement will be passed through the Council of Representatives (parliament)," spokesman al-Dabbagh told AP Television News. But he added: "You cannot guarantee 100 percent approval of anything."
Neighboring Iran has bitterly opposed the pact on grounds that it enshrines the U.S. military presence in Iraq and threatens its security and regional influence.
However, Iranian state television took a more nuanced position in a commentary Sunday after it became clear that emboldened Iraqi leaders were going their own way on the pact.
"This is a victory for the al-Maliki government, which was able to apply its own viewpoints," it said in a possible reference to American concessions.
Shiite Iran maintains close relations with many of Iraq's Shiite parties, whose ministers voted in favor of the pact Sunday in what may be a signal that they are willing to balance their ties with the Americans and their longtime supporters in Tehran.
Followers of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr protested Sunday's vote.
"This agreement hands Iraq over (to the United States) on a golden platter and for an indefinite period," said Ahmed al-Massoudi, spokesman for the 30-seat Sadrist bloc in parliament.
Al-Sadr, whose militiamen fought U.S. forces in three uprisings since 2003, has threatened to resume attacks on U.S. forces if they don't immediately begin to withdraw from Iraq.
__ Associated Press Writers Sinan Salaheddin and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.