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Shiite bloc holds off OK to U.S.-Iraq pact

Key members of the Iraqi parliament's largest political bloc have called for all American troops to leave the country in 2011 as a condition for allowing the U.S. military to stay beyond year's end, officials said Sunday.

The change sought by the influential United Iraqi Alliance would harden the withdrawal date for U.S. troops. A draft bilateral agreement completed this week would require American forces to leave by December 2011, but allows for an extension by mutual agreement.

The Shiite bloc, which includes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party, also insists that Iraqi officials have a bigger role in determining whether U.S. soldiers accused of wrongdoing are subject to prosecution in Iraqi courts, said Sami al-Askeri, a political adviser to Maliki. The Pentagon has resisted that proposal.

If the Iraqi Alliance's conditions are not met, “I cannot see that this agreement will see the light,” said Askeri, who is also a lawmaker from Maliki's party.

It was not immediately clear if the U.S. side would accept the changes to the draft agreement. The document would provide legal authority for American troops to remain in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31. If there is no accord or other legal cover for U.S. forces, they must leave.

The Bush administration has long resisted setting firm dates for the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, saying the decision should be based on security conditions. U.S. authorities ultimately accepted a compromise, which set the 2011 withdrawal date but provided for an extension if Iraq requested one.

U.S. officials had regarded that provision as sufficient to deal with any surge of violence in a country where security remains fragile. While attacks have plummeted in the past year, insurgent groups are still active and U.S. military officials fear unresolved political issues could re-ignite violence.

The draft status of forces agreement was discussed Sunday night by the Iraqi Political Council for National Security, an advisory body of senior executive, legislative and judicial officials. If the council gives it the green light, the accord will be sent to the cabinet and parliament for approval.

In the meeting, Iraq's defense and interior ministers told colleagues that the security forces created since the fall of Saddam Hussein are still incapable of defending the country, said presidential spokesman Nasir al-Ani.

The ministers said Iraq's security forces “still have no air cover and don't have the ability to suppress any attacks” from foreign countries, Ani told Iraq's al-Sharqiya television. The council is expected to continue to meet about the agreement, officials said.

U.S. military trainers have said the Iraqi forces still lack logistical, intelligence and other capabilities.

Mahmoud Othman, a lawmaker from the Kurdish bloc, the second-biggest in parliament, said the escalation in demands by the Shiite alliance could represent politicians' desire to position themselves before provincial elections expected in the next few months. Many Iraqis resent the American presence.

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