Controversial Status of Forces Agreement Facing Iraqi Opposition

Iraq's top leaders met late Sunday to review a controversial security pact with the U.S. that will determine American troop deployments beyond this year, a parliamentary official said.

The official who spoke on condition of anonymity said members of the Political Council for National Security met for about two hours at the Baghdad home of President Jalal Talabani.

The council, which comprises Talabani, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other senior government officials, discussed the draft in detail. They are now expected to refer it to the cabinet, the official said, giving no further details.

Should the cabinet give the go-ahead, the agreement would then be submitted to parliament for final approval.

The deal is fiercely opposed by many key Iraqi role players, including Shiite radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who brought thousands of his supporters onto the streets of Baghdad on Saturday to demand the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sadr on Saturday urged parliament not to vet the accord while on Sunday senior leaders of Maliki's own ruling alliance also came out against it, saying further changes are necessary.

"There are positive points and others need more time to be discussed, and others need modification," the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) said in a statement.

Meanwhile, due to the ongoing negotiations with Washington over the pact, Maliki has decided to postpone his visit to Australia scheduled for next week, his office said in a statement Sunday.

The agreement was due to be concluded by the end of July but became embroiled in squabbles over whether U.S. soldiers in Iraq who commit crimes would continue to enjoy the immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts they were granted at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The latest draft stipulates that Iraq has the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers and civilians for crimes committed outside their bases and when off duty.

It further says that the U.S. will have the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over its soldiers and civilians if they commit a crime inside their facilities or when on missions.

But the arrangement gives Iraqi courts the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers and civilians if they commit "grave and premeditated felonies outside their facilities and when not on missions."

The decision is seen as a hard-won concession for Maliki who has taken a tough stand on protecting his country's sovereignty in the pact.

The so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) will provide the legal basis for a U.S. troop presence in Iraq after the present UN mandate expires on December 31.

A failure to agree on the terms would force Baghdad and Washington to find another legal framework.

If the agreement is signed by the two sides and approved by the Iraqi parliament, it will become effective from January 1 and last for three years, during which a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces is outlined.

According to the draft agreement, U.S. combat forces will withdraw from Iraqi towns and villages by June 2009 and pull out of Iraq completely by December 2011.

The two sides have also agreed that all military operations in Iraq will be carried out with the approval of Baghdad under the supervision of a Joint Military Operation Coordination Committee (JMOCC) to be formed under the pact.

The agreement also restricts U.S. military powers by permitting troops to detain Iraqis only through an Iraqi order.

"In case they detain, the detainee must be handed over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours," the document says.

Maliki said on Sunday that Iraq was keen to negotiate a similar security pact with Britain to provide for a British military presence beyond this year.

"If the SOFA with the U.S. is approved by parliament, it will help signing an agreement with British for their military presence in Iraq," he said in a statement after talks with visiting British Defense Secretary John Hutton.

Hutton, 53, who took over the defense portfolio from Des Browne just over two weeks ago, said that he had brought his team to discuss the Status of Forces Agreement between Baghdad and London.

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