Iraqi cleric repeats concerns on US-Iraq pact

Iraq's top Shiite cleric says that the US-Iraqi security pact could only be viable if the country's full sovereignty is restored.

Iraqi Shiite Muslims march in support of the Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, carrying images of him at a rally in Najaf, Friday, in this Feb. 20, 2004 file photo.
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BAGHDAD // Iraq's top Shiite cleric said today that the US-Iraqi security pact would only be viable if the country's main political groups backed it and it restored the country's full sovereignty. The comment by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani came as the 275-seat parliament prepared for a Nov 24 vote on the pact, which would allow US troops to stay in Iraq for three more years. If passed by the legislature, it would then require ratification by the president and his two deputies. Mr al Sistani has not publicly taken a clear position on the pact, but he has indicated that it could only work if it is passed by a comfortable majority in parliament. His latest comments came in a statement issued by his office in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. It said they were made in response to a question by a follower on what it termed "claims in the media" that the cleric supported the pact. Mr al Sistani does not speak to journalists or give media interviews, communicating his views through edicts or in answers to questions sent to him by followers. The Iraqi cabinet has overwhelmingly approved the pact, meaning prospects of it passing in parliament are good since the prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition partners dominate the legislature. A senior official close to Mr al Sistani has said that the cleric, who can bury the agreement if he publicly speaks against it, told two of Mr al Maliki's emissaries on Saturday that while not ideal, the document seemed to be the best possible option. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to publicise what took place in the meeting, said Mr al-Sistani made clear to the two that it would be "unbecoming" for him to speak publicly in favour of the agreement because of his religious status. Mr al Sistani wields enormous influence among Iraq's majority Shiites and his nod to the agreement removed a potential hurdle in the way of the pact, which provides for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities by June 30 2009 and the entire country by Jan 1 2012. The statement said Mr al Sistani wanted the agreement to secure the "restoration of full sovereignty and the realisation of Iraq's stability and security." It also quoted him as saying that he wanted it to "win the support of all Iraqis and their main political groups." He did not suggest that he wanted it passed unanimously, 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 Mr al Sistani, who called on lawmakers to "rise to their historic responsibility before God and the people." The agreement places US military operations and movement under stringent Iraqi control. It also gives the Iraqis limited judicial powers over American soldiers and defence contractors in the case of serious crimes committed off-base and off-duty. It prohibits the US military from using Iraqi territory to launch attacks against Iraq's neighbours, including longtime American adversaries Iran and Syria. Mr al Sistani's comments did not constitute a change in the cleric's position on the agreement, but the timing and the tone of the statement suggested that he may have lingering concerns. 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, which is highly unlikely with less than six weeks left before the expiration of the UN mandate. The main blocs in parliament - the Shiites, the Kurds and most of the Sunni Arabs - support the agreement and can easily muster a comfortable majority in the Nov 24 vote, but any one of the three members of the presidential council led by the president, Jalal Talabani, can veto it.