RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials today set a date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The security pact came after nearly a year of difficult on and off again negotiations. In the end it called for American troops to be out of Iraq within the next three years. American and Iraqi officials signed the deal after Iraqi cabinet ministers approved it yesterday. Next, Iraq's parliament must approve it. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Baghdad.
IVAN WATSON: Today's signing ceremony marked the end of nearly a year of hard bargaining over the withdrawal of American forces. The pact calls for U.S. troops to pull back from Iraqi cities and towns by June of next year. The American military must perform a complete withdrawal from the country by the end of 2011.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNING CEREMONY)
MONTAGNE: This is an historic occasion for the United States and for Iraq.
WATSON: U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker signed the document alongside Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari who led the Iraqi negotiating team.
MONTAGNE: This was a complicated and tough negotiation, and I think all Iraqis can be very proud of the substantial achievement that their negotiating team has registered.
WATSON: Yesterday, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called the security agreement the best possible solution for Iraq.
MONTAGNE: (Arabic spoken)
WATSON: Al-Dabbagh said U.S. negotiators had compromised on several key articles, including one which would put American troops suspected of committing crimes under the jurisdiction of both U.S. and Iraqi courts. He said U.S. forces would not be able to conduct raids or search homes without first getting a warrant from an Iraqi judge. And al-Dabbagh said the U.S. military will not be able to launch attacks on neighboring countries from Iraqi territory. Iraqi lawmaker Reda Taqi said this was an Iraqi demand to avoid potential future problems with neighbors like Iran and Syria.
MONTAGNE: We asked the United States to put this article, this issue inside the agreement because we don't need to provoke neighboring countries.
WATSON: Now, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has to convince Iraq's many rival factions to accept the draft agreement. Only 28 of his 37 cabinet ministers showed up to vote on the pact yesterday. All but one of those officials voted in favor. The document must now be approved by the Iraqi parliament, and that may be easier said than done. Muqtada Al-Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric who has repeatedly battled Iraq's Shiite-led government, denounced the agreement and threatened to hold street protests. Sadrist lawmaker Ahmed al-Massoudi called the agreement a farce.
MONTAGNE: (Through Translator) This agreement still gives immunity to U.S. soldiers. The Iraqi government did not achieve anything. It has just handed over Iraq to the invader and legalized the presence of these forces in Iraq.
WATSON: There has also been strong opposition from Sunni Arabs. The largest Sunni party is calling for the agreement to be put before a referendum. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni parliament member, fears the pact will leave too much power in the hands of Shiite factions who he accuses of working with Iran.
MONTAGNE: As the Americans are going to leave us as we are now, I think we are going for a battle between us. We are going for a fight.
WATSON: The agreement does have the support of Iraqi Kurds and of Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. That should be enough, say some pro-government politicians, for at least half of the parliament to vote for its approval. If it passes, it will provide a road map for the departure of U.S. troops almost nine years after the American invasion of Iraq. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Baghdad.
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