BAGHDAD – Iraqi lawmakers Monday began debate over a pact with the United States that will allow U.S. forces to remain for three more years, while an Iranian official close to that country's leadership praised the Iraqi Cabinet for approving the deal.
The comments from Iran's judiciary chief marked the first time that the deal has met with clear-cut approval in neighboring Iran. Meanwhile, Syria, target of a deadly cross-border raid by U.S. forces in recent weeks, criticized the deal as virtual surrender to America.
More than two-thirds of the 275-seat legislature attended Monday's session, raising confidence that parliament will be able to muster a quorum for the Nov. 24 vote. The session ended after the agreement's text was read to lawmakers, the first step to adopt legislation.
Lawmakers are expected to meet again on Tuesday.
The Cabinet approved the pact Sunday, meaning the political parties in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition government are expected to have similar success in securing parliamentary support. If parliament approves, President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies must ratify it.
Under the agreement, U.S. forces must vacate Iraqi cities by June, leave Iraq by the end of 2011 and grant Iraqi authorities extensive power over the operations and movements of American forces. It also prohibits the U.S. from using Iraqi territory to attack Iraq's neighbors, like Syria and Iran.
It also gives Iraq the right to try U.S. soldiers and defense contractors in the case of serious crimes committed off-duty and off-base.
The deal would replace a U.N. mandate governing their presence in Iraq that expires Dec. 31.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker described the Iraqi Cabinet's approval as "historic" at a time when security has improved dramatically.
At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino defended the pact even though it includes a U.S. troop withdrawal timeline — a point that President George W. Bush had long opposed as a sign of defeat. She said the timeline was a concession to Iraqis and described it as "aspirational dates."
Iran and Syria, longtime adversaries of Washington, have said an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces would be the best solution for Iraq, fearing threats to their security and regional influence. Iraqis sought to allay their fears, amending the pact with the ban on cross-border attacks from Iraq.
On Monday, however, Iran's judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, said the Iraqi Cabinet acted "very well" in approving the pact. The Web site of Iran's state television quoted him as saying he hoped the U.S. will withdraw from Iraq within the time specified in the deal.
"The Iraqi government has done very well regarding this," he said. "We hope the outcome of (the deal) will be in favor of Islam and Iraqi sovereignty."
Shahroudi is very close to Iran's top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his comments reflect thinking of conservatives within the ruling system, but not all hard-liners or President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Hard-line outlets, which have said the pact would "turn Iraq into a full-fledged colony" and urged Iraqis to oppose it, remained adamant. "Iraqi government gave in to American capitulation," read a front-page headline in the hard-line daily Jomhuri-e-Eslami newspaper Monday.
In Syria, a top government official the deal as an "award to the occupiers" of Iraq. "We shouldn't give occupiers any reward or prize ... On the contrary, they should apologize for the damage they have caused," Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal said.
The Iraqi Cabinet's approval came one day after the country's most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said he would not object to the pact if approved by a comfortable majority in the legislature.
That removed a major hurdle in the way of the agreement since the Iranian-born cleric could have buried the deal had he publicly opposed it and Shiite parties said they would not sign off on the document before the cleric stated his support for it.
Senior al-Maliki aides said the deal's chances also were helped by Washington's favorable response to two changes that he requested last week.
One removed ambiguous language that could have allowed U.S. forces not to adhere to a June 30 deadline for their withdrawal from cities to outlying bases, and another that prohibited raiding Iraqi homes during routine security sweeps without a court order.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations.
Crocker conducted a largely symbolic signing of the deal with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. Calling it a "complicated and tough negotiation," Crocker said "I think all Iraqis can be very proud of the substantial achievement."
Perino said the pact can be changed if either President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office Jan. 20, or the Iraqis want to alter it. Each side has the right to repeal the agreement after giving one year's notice, a senior Iraqi lawmaker has said.
Lawmakers loyal to Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of the pact, attended Monday's parliamentary session. They entered the chamber as the security agreement was being read to lawmakers, shouting and briefly interrupting the process before the reading resumed.
Al-Sadr, who has about 30 legislators in his camp, has urged parliament to reject the agreement and has threatened to resume attacks on U.S. forces if they don't immediately begin withdrawing from Iraq.
Al-Sadr's fighters have battled the Americans over the years, but he declared a cease-fire last year and disbanded most of his militia. Al-Sadr, who is based in Iran, has called for a protest in a central Baghdad square on Friday.