Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has informed Iraq's presidency council that he now supports a security agreement with the United States, a Shiite Muslim legislator who's close to the premier said Friday.
Lawmaker Sami al-Askari said that al-Maliki had declared his backing for the controversial accord at a meeting last week with Iraq's president and vice presidents. The only person who dissented was the Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi.
However, Iraq's two most powerful Shiite clerics on Friday challenged the planned pact, undercutting efforts to reach a deal before the U.N. mandate for American troops in Iraq expires Dec. 31.
Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr renewed threats to unleash his militia fighters to attack U.S. forces unless they leave Iraq immediately, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani vowed to intervene if he concludes the proposed agreement governing the presence of U.S. forces infringes on national sovereignty.
Al-Askari said al-Maliki planned to address the nation in coming days to ask for the people's support of the agreement, which Iraqi officials now call the “withdrawal agreement.”
This would represent an about-face for the Shiite prime minister, who was a hard-line holdout throughout the negotiations and had publicly criticized early drafts of the agreement.
According to al-Askari, the United States had agreed to two more amendments to the draft. He said that the two negotiating teams would work through the night Friday to synchronize the Arabic and English texts.
“We can't get any more,” al-Askari said.
The draft will be presented to the Cabinet on Sunday with al-Maliki's support, and if it passes it will move to the parliament on Monday, al-Askari said. The parliamentary process will take at least a week, and if it doesn't pass there, there'll be no agreement.
Currently the draft calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of next June and to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.