A controversial deal allowing US troops to stay in the country for another three years will be put to a pulic vote, has agreed Iraq’s parliament.
On Wednesday, after delaying their vote on the deal by 24 hours, MPs decided to make the pact dependent on a national referendum, due to be held in 2009.
Reservations by Sunnis and opposition by Shias threatened to derail the agreement.
On Thursday MPs will vote on the wide-ranging accord.
In an attempt to keep various political factions on board and push the accord through parliament with a respectable majority, it has been subject to numerous revisions.
Now the pact makes provision for Iraqi supervision of US forces and also meets demands for a clear exit timetable for the 150,000 US troops in Iraq.
Yet the Shia-led government was still struggling to agree concessions demanded by different political blocs, in return for lending support for the pact.
Reaching an agreement on the deal is still possible, insisted Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s foreign minister.
“There are complications, but we haven’t lost hope yet”, he said.
As Washington needs the pact to replace the UN mandate governing international forces in Iraq, which expires on December 31, the decision to hold a referendum in 2009 could set the two countries on a collision course.
But according to Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, the proposed referendum would not prevent the pact from taking effect on January 1.
“My understanding is that nothing here delays the entering into force of the agreement and that’s really the important point”, said Mrs Rice at a news conference on Wednesday.
On Thursday, the 275-member assembly is expected to vote on the pact, which would require US troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of June and from the rest of the country by the end of 2011.
The Shia United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Kurdish alliance and a number of independent MPs support the measure, which is enough for it to pass with slightly more than the requisite simple majority of 138 votes.
But the government and the UIA are making a last-minute push in order to assemble a broader coalition, said Khaled al-Attiya, the deputy parliamentary speaker.
“We do not want to pass this agreement with a difference of two, three or four votes”, Mr Attiya told the AFP news agency on Tuesday.
Over a week ago Iraq’s cabinet approved the agreement, which is the product of nearly a year of tough negotiations, with support from the major blocs representing the country’s Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities.
A specific timeline for withdrawal, the right to search US military cargo and the right to try US soldiers for crimes committed while they are off their bases and off-duty, are some of the concessions that Iraq won in the deal.
The agreement also requires that US troops obtain Iraqi permission for all military operations, and that they hand over the files of all detainees in US custody to the Iraqi authorities, who will decide their fate.
US troops are also forbidden from using Iraq as a launch-pad or transit point for attacking another country, which may reassure Syria and Iran.
But in certain quarters, like followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, Iraq’s influential Shia cleric, criticize the accord.