Iraqi parliament debates security pact

BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraqi lawmakers Monday began debate over a pact with the United States that will allow U.S. forces to remain for three more years, while an Iranian official close to that country’s leadership praised the Iraqi Cabinet for approving the deal.

The comments from Iran’s judiciary chief marked the first time that the deal has met with clear-cut approval in neighboring Iran. Meanwhile, Syria, target of a deadly cross-border raid by U.S. forces in recent weeks, criticized the deal as virtual surrender to America.

More than two-thirds of the 275-seat legislature attended Monday’s session, raising confidence that parliament will be able to muster a quorum for the Nov. 24 vote. The session ended after the agreement’s text was read to lawmakers, the first step to adopt legislation.

The Cabinet approved the pact Sunday, meaning the political parties in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition government are expected to have similar success in securing parliamentary support. If parliament approves, President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies must ratify it.

Under the agreement, U.S. forces must vacate Iraqi cities by June, leave Iraq by the end of 2011 and grant Iraqi authorities extensive power over the operations and movements of American forces. It also prohibits the United States from using Iraqi territory to attack Iraq’s neighbors, such as Syria and Iran.

It also gives Iraq the right to try U.S. soldiers and defense contractors in the case of serious crimes committed off-duty and off-base.

The deal would replace a U.N. mandate governing their presence in Iraq that expires Dec. 31.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker described the Iraqi Cabinet’s approval as “historic” at a time when security has improved dramatically.

At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino defended the pact, even though it includes a U.S. troop withdrawal timeline, a point President George W. Bush had long opposed as a sign of defeat. She said the timeline was a concession to Iraqis and described it as “aspirational dates.”

Iran and Syria, longtime adversaries of Washington, have said an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces would be the best solution for Iraq, fearing threats to their security and regional influence. Iraqis sought to allay their fears, amending the pact with the ban on cross-border attacks from Iraq.

On Monday, however, Iran’s judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, said the Iraqi Cabinet acted “very well” in approving the pact. The Web site of Iran’s state television quoted him as saying he hoped the United States would withdraw from Iraq within the time specified in the deal.

“The Iraqi government has done very well regarding this,” he said. “We hope the outcome of (the deal) will be in favor of Islam and Iraqi sovereignty.”

Shahroudi is very close to Iran’s top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his comments reflect thinking of conservatives within the ruling system, but not all hard-liners or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Hard-line outlets, which have said the pact would “turn Iraq into a full-fledged colony” and urged Iraqis to oppose it, remained adamant.

“Iraqi government gave in to American capitulation,” read a front-page headline in the hard-line daily Jomhuri-e-Eslami newspaper Monday.