BAGHDAD – Iraq's prime minister went on national television Tuesday to defend a security pact with the United States that keeps U.S. forces in Iraq through 2011 and assure neighbors that Iraqi territory would not be used to attack them.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acknowledged that he had concerns about the agreement, but said it was a step toward full Iraqi sovereignty once the last U.S. soldier leaves.
"I say to you with complete honesty that we have reservations about the agreement. But we at the same time see it as a solid prelude to the restoration of Iraq's full sovereignty in three years' time," al-Maliki said.
"I assure you that there are no secret clauses or annexes in the agreement, nor permanent military bases in Iraq," he said. "Iraq will never be a conduit or a staging ground for an attack on any other nation."
In the pursuit of a good deal for Iraq, he said, negotiations with the Americans repeatedly hit snags. The negotiations, he said, were "complex and difficult."
The Cabinet approved the agreement, which now goes to a vote on Nov. 24 in the 275-seat parliament. Al-Maliki's coalition partners dominate the legislature, so the vote has a good chance of approval. The Iraqi president and his two deputies would then need to ratify it.
Also Tuesday, the government announced that the long-awaited provincial elections will be held Jan. 31. Iraqi authorities have for months said the provincial elections would be held by Jan. 31, and the announcement of a precise date by government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh did not come as a surprise.
Iraq last held provincial elections in January 2005, when the once-dominant Sunni Arab community boycotted the vote, leaving the Kurds and Shiites — who make up about 80 percent of the population — dominating local councils in areas where the Sunnis are a majority or a large minority.
The United States believes the elections will foster national reconciliation, allowing each of the country's main ethnic and religious groups to have a stake in the country's welfare.
Al-Maliki's comments followed the dispatch of Iraqi envoys to the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Turkey to brief their leaders on the pact.
Turkey and the Emirates are U.S. allies, but Iran is a longtime U.S. adversary and had until this week strongly opposed the security pact. It was surprisingly positive on the pact after it was signed.
That apparent policy shift was widely interpreted as a reflection of Iran's desire to improve relations with Washington two months ahead of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration. Obama has pledged to start pulling out troops after moving to the White House Jan. 20.
Al-Maliki's envoys are led by Akram al-Hakim, minister of state for reconciliation affairs.
Iraq's top Shiite cleric, meanwhile, said the pact would only be viable if Iraq's main political groups backed it.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who wields enormous influence among Iraq's majority Shiites, said he wanted the pact to secure Iraqi stability and sovereignty and "win the support of all Iraqis and their main political groups."
He did not suggest that he wanted it passed unanimously in parliament, instead using the Arabic word for "accord," or support by a large and representative number of lawmakers.
"Any agreement that does not meet those two demands ... cannot be accepted," said al-Sistani, who called on lawmakers to "rise to their historic responsibility before God and the people."
Al-Sistani's comments were released in a statement issued by his office in Najaf. He has not publicly taken a clear position, but indicated that the security pact could only work if it is passed by a comfortable majority in parliament.
Al-Sistani's nod to the agreement removed a potential hurdle in the way of the pact, which provides for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009 and the country by Jan. 1, 2012.
The agreement places U.S. military operations and movement under stringent Iraqi control. It also gives the Iraqis limited judicial powers over American soldiers and defense contractors in the case of serious crimes committed off-base and off-duty.
Parliament can only reject or pass the agreement, since the document was officially signed by the two nations and cannot be changed unless negotiations reopen. That is highly unlikely with less than six weeks left before the expiration of the U.N. mandate.