Iraq's Cabinet on Sunday overwhelmingly approved a proposed security agreement that calls for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
The Cabinet's decision brings a departure date a significant step closer after more than 5 1/2 years of war.
The proposal must still be approved by Iraq's parliament, in a vote scheduled to take place in a week. But leaders of some of the largest parliamentary blocs expressed confidence that with the backing of most Shiites and Kurds they had enough support.
Twenty-seven of the 28 Cabinet ministers who were at the 21/2-hour session voted for the pact. The near unanimity was a victory for the dominant Shiite party and its Kurdish partners.
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Widespread Sunni opposition could doom the agreement, as it would call into question whether there was a true national consensus, which Shiite leaders consider essential.
The agreement, which took nearly a year to negotiate, not only sets a withdrawal date, but puts new restrictions on U.S. combat operations starting Jan. 1 and requires a pullback from urban areas by next June 30. Those hard dates reflect a significant concession by the Bush administration, which had been publicly averse to timetables.
Iraq also obtained jurisdiction in some cases over serious crimes committed by Americans who are off duty and not on bases.
The White House welcomed the vote as “an important and positive step” and attributed the agreement to improved security over the last year.
Throughout the negotiations, the Shiite parties and the prime minister, Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, had been trying to strike a balance. They wanted both to forge a viable agreement that would guarantee Iraq's security and still stand firm against what many consider a hostile occupying force.
“This vote shows that the Iraqis have figured out how to stand up for themselves, to Iran and to the U.S.,” said Michael O'Hanlon, a specialist on Iraq at the Brookings Institution.
American officials, who had hoped to reach an agreement in mid-summer, said the accord was the result of tough bargaining by the Iraqis.
Some Iraqi Shiite politicians said a significant factor in the Cabinet decision was the approval of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq. From the outset he had laid down three conditions: full Iraqi sovereignty, transparency and majority support for the pact.
Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, said the agreement allows for the possibility that American forces could withdraw even earlier if Iraqi forces are in a position to take over security responsibilities earlier. He also said either side has the right to cancel the agreement with one year's notice. Several political analysts suggested that Iranian opposition to the pact had softened because of the American presidential election victory of Barack Obama. He has described an even faster timetable, though recently he has qualified that stance.