Thursday, December 04, 2008
by Salam Faraj Salam Faraj 58 mins ago BAGHDAD (AFP) – Iraq's presidential council on Thursday gave its blessing to a landmark security pact with the United States which calls for American combat troops to withdraw by the end of 2011. The controversial agreement, which replaces a UN mandate covering the presence of foreign forces which is due to expire at the end of 2008, was approved by Iraq's parliament last month after months of wrangling. "Nothing has been changed (in the accord)," presidency secretary Nasir al-Ani told AFP after it was reviewed by the body made up of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and two vice presidents, a Shiite and a Sunni Arab. The council decision marks the final hurdle for the pact in terms of government or legislative approval. But as part of the intense political bargaining that led up to parliament's approval of the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, the Iraqi government agreed to demands to hold a referendum on the accord no later than July 30. The pact was made possible in part by dramatic improvements in security over the past year, with US and Iraqi forces now largely containing the chaos that erupted after the 2003 US-led invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein. On Wednesday, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said US commanders were considering an accelerated drawdown of US forces, softening his opposition to president-elect Barack Obama's 16-month timetable. "I am less concerned about that timetable," he told a news conference at the Pentagon a day after Obama announced Gates had agreed to stay on as defence secretary in a Democratic administration. Gates said US commanders were already "looking at what the implications of that are in terms of the potential for accelerating the drawdown and -- and in terms of how we meet our obligations to the Iraqis." On Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met top US officials to push for the speedy implementation of the SOFA, which will govern the presence of the 150,000 US troops stationed in over 400 bases, giving the Iraqi government veto power over virtually all of their operations. Parliament's approval of the pact was seen as a victory for Maliki's Shiite-led government which succeeded in corralling a comfortable majority to support the deal, including the main blocs representing the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities. But the accord has still drawn fire from certain quarters, including followers of the hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who reject any agreement with the United States which they consider an occupying force.