BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki on Tuesday urged the Iraqi public to support the new pact that calls for withdrawing American forces as his most determined opponent, radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, once again urged the parliament to vote down the agreement.
Maliki's nationally televised address marked his first clear, public endorsement of the treaty after nine months of what he called "difficult and complicated" negotiations with U.S. officials.
In May, Maliki declared that the negotiations were at an impasse, and he'd remained lukewarm this fall, neither endorsing nor rejecting a draft of the agreement.
His position changed late last week. Supporters said the prime minister would back the arrangement because of new U.S. concessions.
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The main sticking points were Iraq's demands to fix a firm U.S. withdrawal date and for more authority to prosecute U.S. soldiers and contractors who commit crimes in Iraq. Iraqis contend that the Americans gave ground on both points.
The security agreement cleared a vote in the Iraqi Cabinet by a resounding majority Sunday, but it could be derailed in parliament.
Maliki criticized the agreement's opponents, contending that they were misleading the public.
"What they tell the media contradicts completely what they say in official meetings," he said.
"I confirm that there are no secret articles and no permanent military bases on the land of Iraq which will be a path to launch any attack against any state," he said.
Opposition to the pact comes primarily from two sides: an alliance of Sunni Muslim political parties that wants the treaty modified and from Sadr's followers.
The Sunni parties seek changes that would free detainees held in American custody rather than hand them over to Iraqi authorities and would provide compensation for victims of U.S. attacks during the war. Some Sunni leaders also want the agreement to be put to voters as a national referendum.
Those shifts won't be possible. Under Iraqi law, a treaty approved by the Cabinet is a final agreement between two states. The parliament can approve or reject it, but it can't change the content.
Sadr's supporters oppose the agreement because they want the 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq to withdraw immediately, a toughened stance from Sadr's position in August. In a statement Tuesday, he declared: "I call on the parliament again to refuse this agreement without any hesitation. . . . It is the sale of Iraq and its people."
Iraq's top Shiite Muslim spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, issued a statement Tuesday that didn't clearly support or condemn the treaty. It read, "His eminence confirmed that any agreement that . . . diminishes Iraqi sovereignty, security or its economy, or that doesn't gain national accordance, cannot be accepted and will be a cause of increasing the suffering of Iraqis, their separations and the disagreement between them."
(Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee).
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