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US pact holds pitfalls for Iraq's feuding factions: analysts

Followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose power has withered in recent months as Iraqi troops have cracked down on his feared Mahdi Army militia, have vowed to oppose the agreement with massive street protests.
by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) Nov 16, 2008
Most of Iraq's political factions believe that a military pact approved by the Iraqi cabinet Sunday offers the best hope for eventually expelling foreign troops, but convincing the public could prove divisive, analysts said.

The wide-ranging accord establishes a firm timetable for the withdrawal of nearly all US-led troops by 2011, but it also legitimises their presence until then, providing political ammunition for hardline nationalists.

"There is the agreement and there is the pyschology of the agreement," Hosham Dawod, an Iraq expert at France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, said in a phone interview from Paris.

The latter is a key consideration in a country where a welter of factions jockey for support on the streets and in the voting booths.

"If you ask most political leaders if it's possible to have an Iraqi state without this agreement they will say no," Dawod says. "The differences are over how to present it to the public."

Followers of the firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose power has withered in recent months as Iraqi troops have cracked down on his feared Mahdi Army militia, have vowed to oppose the agreement with massive street protests.

"They have said that rejecting the agreement is a national demand and that for them it is a policy that will strengthen them on the Iraqi street," said Dawod, who recently met with several senior Sadrists in Paris.

The Sadrists' protests may help them mobilise support ahead of provincial elections slated for January 31, but they ignore the benefits of the agreement, says Tariq al-Mamori, the editor of Iraq's Al-Bilad Al-Youm newspaper.

"There is a part of the Iraq population that is not cultured, that is very simple, and that is easily led by religious leaders," he says.

"But I don't understand (the Sadrist position) because the alternative to the agreement is worse than the agreement," he adds, pointing out that rejecting the agreement also means refusing a set US timetable for withdrawal.

Those who have signed the pact will likely say they had no other option.

"Whatever they may be saying today, for nationalist purposes, especially ahead of the elections, the current parties in power want the US forces to stay," said Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group.

"The US presence is keeping them in power and they know that they remain weak and unpopular, with an army that has been only partially rebuilt and remains woefully inefficient."

That may not prevent some of the more powerful parties -- like the Shiite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council -- from trying to shift the burden of accepting the agreement to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and his smaller Dawa party.

Perhaps anticipating this, Muwafaq al-Rubaie, the head Iraqi negotiator for the pact, told AFP ahead of the vote that he thought the agreement would be considered an achievement for all Iraq's political factions.

"I hope it will help the ruling parties in the provincial elections," he said, emphasising the "s" in "parties."

Maliki, already riding a wave of popular support for cracking down on militias and presiding over a dramatic recent improvement in security, will likely use the agreement to present himself as a unifying national leader.

Maliki had already pressed for the name of the pact to be changed from the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to the Agreement to Withdraw all Foreign Forces from Iraq.

"He will adamantly affirm that this was not an agreement for forces to remain but for them to leave. He will say that this agreement marks the beginning of their departure," Dawod says.

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Iraqi cabinet approves US pact amid lingering violence
Baghdad (AFP) Nov 16, 2008
Iraq's cabinet approved a military pact on Sunday that requires the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of 2011, as a deadly suicide car bomb underscored the country's lingering insecurity.

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