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In Iraq, after months of difficult negotiations, the parliament has voted to ratify a new security agreement with the U.S. It calls for the gradual withdrawal of American forces over the next three years. As NPR's Ivan Watson reports, the vote was almost postponed because of disputes between rival political factions.

IVAN WATSON: In the run-up to today's vote, Iraqi lawmakers have engaged in fierce debates over the treaty. In one session last week, some opponents ended up wrestling with security guards at the front of the assembly room. Today's session had barely begun when lawmakers loyal to rogue cleric Muqtada al-Sadr staged a raucous protest that demanded the immediate pullout of American troops from Iraq.

(Soundbite of protest)

WATSON: They 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 out of the 198 lawmakers present approved it. The security agreement was drawn up after nine months of hard bargaining between Iraqi and American negotiators. It goes into effect on January 1, at which point it stipulates U.S. forces must first get Iraqi government permission before they can carry out military operations. American troops will have to pull back from all Iraqi cities and towns by June of next year and withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011. This evening, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki applauded the agreement in a televised speech to the nation.

(Soundbite of televised speech)

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI: (Iraq) (Through Translator) You, the sons of the proud Iraq, today is the day of sovereignty. Together we will move towards a free, proud, independent, and prosperous Iraq.

WATSON: But today's vote almost didn't happen. While radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded the immediate withdrawal of American forces, Sunni Arab politicians worried what the agreement would do to the future balance of power in Iraq. Sunni lawmaker Ala Mekki said an American military withdrawal would leave too much power in the hands of Iraq's Shiite prime minister, who he claimed already had disproportionate control over the Iraqi security forces.

Mr. ALA MAKKI (Sunni Lawmaker, Iraq): So, this case of the army will be not Iraqi army. It will be Maliki army.

WATSON: So the Sunni's and some other opposition politicians linked the treaty's ratification in parliament to a package of reforms aimed at curbing some of Maliki's powers. The move infuriated Maliki's adviser Haider al-Abadi.

Mr. HAIDER AL-ABADI (Adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki): Why they left it till the parliament, until the last moment? Is it to twist the arm of the prime minister?

WATSON: Negotiations collapsed last night. Some observers here feared the Iraqi-American security pact might never be approved. Then this afternoon, rival factions suddenly announced they had agreed upon a vague, non-binding resolution which calls for more power sharing in government. Lawmakers approved it moments before their noisy vote for the Iraqi-American security pact.

As part of the compromise, six months after the pact goes into effect, it must go before a popular referendum. This was a nail biter, one senior U.S. Embassy official said after the vote, adding somehow the Iraqis pulled themselves back from the brink. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Baghdad.

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