Iraq's parliament on Thursday ratified a new security agreement that calls for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq over the next three years.
The sweeping vote was almost postponed because of disputes between Iraq's many rival political factions. Lawmakers had engaged in fierce debates over the treaty, and some opponents last week ended up wrestling with security guards at the front of the assembly hall.
Thursday's parliamentary session had barely begun when lawmakers loyal to rogue cleric Muqtada al-Sadr staged a raucous protest demanding the immediate pull-out of American troops from Iraq.
The Sadr loyalists pounded their desks and chanted, 'No to the agreement!" But lawmakers went ahead and voted on the treaty with a show of hands.
In the end, 144 of the 198 lawmakers present approved it.
The security accord was drawn up after nine months of hard bargaining between Iraqi and U.S. negotiators. It goes into effect Jan. 1, 2009, at which point the agreement stipulates that American forces must get Iraqi government permission before carrying out military operations in Iraq. U.S. troops will be required to pull back from all Iraqi cities and towns by June 2009, and withdraw completely from the country by the end of 2011.
The deal also strips foreign security companies such as Blackwater USA of their special status, making them subject to Iraqi laws and courts.
Additionally, U.S. troops could fall under the jurisdiction of the Iraqi judicial system if they commit crimes while off-duty and outside of U.S. bases.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki applauded the agreement during a televised speech to the nation Thursday evening.
"You sons of proud Iraq, today is the day of sovereignty. Together we will move toward a free, proud, independent and prosperous Iraq," al-Maliki said.
Although the treaty passed easily, the vote nearly didn't take place.
As Sadr was demanding that American forces leave the country immediately, Sunni Arab politicians worried about how an agreement would impact the balance of power in Iraq.
Sunni lawmaker Ala Mekki said the withdrawal of U.S. troops would leave too much power in the hands of Iraq's Shi'ite prime minister, who he claimed already had disproportionate control over the Iraqi security forces.
"There's a big problem in the army," Mekki said by phone. "It's mostly from one side, and there's marginalization of some Iraqi people, groups. So in this case, the army will not be Iraqi army, it will be al-Maliki's army."
So the Sunnis and other politicians who opposed the treaty linked its ratification to a package of measures intended to curb some of Maliki's power.
The move infuriated Maliki adviser Haider al-Abadi: "Why they left it to parliament at the last moment? Is it to twist the arm of the prime minister?"
In fact, negotiations collapsed Wednesday night and some observers feared the Iraqi-U.S. security pact was dead. Then, Thursday afternoon, rival factions suddenly announced that they had agreed on a vague, non-binding resolution that calls for more power sharing in government.
Lawmakers approved the resolution moments before they voted to ratify the treaty.
One senior U.S. Embassy official later called it a nail-biter, adding that somehow the Iraqis pulled themselves back from the brink.