BAGHDAD – Shiite clerics warned the government Friday not to sign a security pact that would keep U.S. troops in Iraq until 2012, as the prime minister studied what U.S. officials described as the final draft of the agreement.
Parliament must approve the agreement by year's end when the U.N. mandate expires. Failure to approve the agreement or get the U.N. Security Council to issue a new mandate would force the U.S. to suspend operations in the country.
Last month, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Cabinet proposed amendments to the pact, including a demand for expanded Iraqi legal authority over U.S. soldiers and the removal of language that could allow U.S. troops to stay past 2012.
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Iraq also asked for an explicit ban on the use of Iraqi soil for attacks against the country's neighbors, like last month's U.S. raid in Syria, and authority to search all U.S. military shipments into and out of Iraq.
Washington sent its response to the proposals Thursday and said the next move belongs to Baghdad.
Details of the U.S. response have not been released, but two senior Iraqi officials said the U.S. accepted some proposals and rejected others. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to discuss the agreement with media.
Nevertheless, several influential Shiite clerics criticized the agreement during sermons Friday, the main Muslim day of worship, arguing that the deal serves U.S. interests more than those of Iraq.
"We renew our total refusal of the security agreement and again we demand parliament and government not to sign it," Sheik Assad al-Nasiri told worshippers in Kufa, 100 miles south of the capital.
In Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City, Sheik Sattar al-Battat maintained the deal infringes on Iraqi sovereignty, and would threaten other countries in the region.
Both preachers are followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iran-based cleric who has long opposed the U.S. military presence. Al-Sadr controls 30 of the 275 seats in parliament, and his bloc has announced it will vote against the agreement.
But criticism also came from Sadralddin al-Qubanji, a member of the largest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The party has not taken a position on the agreement, and its support is critical if the agreement is to pass.
"We are not happy with this agreement which is binding to one side that is Iraq and not binding to the other side that is the United States," al-Qubanji said.
In Lebanon, the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who has a wide following among Iraqi Shiites, also warned against the deal.
The self-styled leader of an Iraqi Al Qaeda front group also called on President-elect Barack Obama and other Western leaders to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a speech posted on the Internet, the purported leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, made the call "on behalf of my brothers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Chechnya," saying it's better "for you and us" to "withdraw your forces."
The speech was reported Friday by the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist Web sites. The U.S. military says al-Baghdadi simply provides a voice for Al Qaeda propaganda.
Al-Maliki has not briefed political leaders about the U.S. response but will do so after carefully studying the text, one official said on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to talk to the media about the agreement.
The official said the Americans had accepted changes but "we didn't get everything we wanted." He would not elaborate.
Also Friday, the U.S. military said U.S. and Iraqi forces killed a senior Al Qaeda in Iraq leader in the Tarmiyah area north of Baghdad.
A military statement said the man known as Abu Ghazwan died in a raid Thursday. It said he was responsible for building car bombs for use in the Baghdad area and for overseeing the recruiting and training of women and children for suicide attacks.