Iraq's prime minister said Friday that the country's most influential Shiite cleric will leave the decision on the future of U.S. troops to the government and parliament – a step that could remove a major obstacle to a deal.
Tension rose in the Iraqi capital Friday as a car bomb killed 13 people in a Shiite enclave and thousands of Shiites marched to mourn the assassination of a lawmaker that their leaders blamed on the Americans.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, journeyed Friday to the Shiite holy city of Najaf to brief Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani about the progress in talks with the U.S. on a security agreement governing operations of American forces starting next year.
After a 21/2-hour meeting, al-Maliki told reporters that the Iranian-born cleric would not oppose the security deal if it is approved by the country's democratic institutions – including parliament, which must ratify the pact.
“He does not want anything forced or imposed on the Iraqi people,” al-Maliki said. “Rather he wants it to be done through the institutions.”
Al-Sistani's office had no comment. However, it would be politically untenable for al-Maliki to accept a deal and send it to parliament for ratification if al-Sistani spoke out publicly against it.
American and Iraqi officials have said they are close to an agreement that would replace the U.N. mandate for U.S. forces in Iraq; the mandate expires Dec. 31. But the most contentious issue – legal jurisdiction and immunity for U.S. troops under Iraqi law – remains unresolved. Al-Maliki said the U.S. had made major concessions, including agreeing to pull U.S. forces back to their bases by the end of June and full withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011.
For years President Bush refused to set a timetable for a troop withdrawal, saying that should depend on security conditions on the ground. Iraqi politicians say they cannot sell the deal to their war-weary public without a timeline for the end of the U.S. presence.
However, one senior U.S. official, close to the talks, confirmed Friday that the Americans had agreed to the June and 2011 dates.
The official, who requested anonymity because the talks are ongoing, said the United States still believes security conditions should determine the withdrawal schedule but that Washington can live with the language in the draft deal.