Iraq's prime minister went on national television Tuesday to defend a security pact with the United States that keeps U.S. forces in Iraq through 2011 and assure neighbors that Iraqi territory would not be used to attack them.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged that he had concerns about the agreement, but said it was a step toward full Iraqi sovereignty once the last U.S. soldier leaves.
“I say to you with complete honesty that we have reservations about the agreement. But we at the same time see it as a solid prelude to the restoration of Iraq's full sovereignty in three years' time,” al-Maliki said.
“I assure you that there are no secret clauses or annexes in the agreement, nor permanent military bases in Iraq,” he said. “Iraq will never be a conduit or a staging ground for an attack on any other nation.”
In the pursuit of a good deal for Iraq, he said, negotiations with the Americans repeatedly hit snags. The negotiations, he said, were “complex and difficult.”
The Cabinet approved the agreement, which now goes to a vote on Nov. 24 in the 275-seat parliament.
Al-Maliki's coalition partners dominate the legislature, so the vote has a good chance of approval. The Iraqi president and his two deputies would then need to ratify it.
Also Tuesday, the government announced that the long-awaited provincial elections will be held Jan. 31.
Iraqi authorities have said for months the provincial elections would be held by Jan. 31, and the announcement of a precise date by government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh did not come as a surprise.
Iraq last held provincial elections in January 2005, when the once-dominant Sunni Arab community boycotted the vote, leaving the Kurds and Shiites – who make up about 80percent of the population – to dominate local councils in areas where Sunnis are a majority or a large minority.
The United States believes the elections will foster national reconciliation, allowing each of the country's main ethnic and religious groups to have a stake in the country's welfare.