BAGHDAD (AFP) — Iraq's parliament on Thursday approved a landmark military pact that will see all US troops withdraw by the end of 2011, eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and plunged the country into chaos.
After 11 months of hard-nosed negotiations with Washington and a flurry of internal negotiations leading up to the vote, the pact was approved by 149 members of the 198 who attended the session of the 275-member assembly.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government succeeded in corralling a comfortable majority to support the historic agreement, including the main blocs representing the country's Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
"This is an historic day for the great people of Iraq," Maliki said in a televised address after the parliamentary vote.
"We have achieved one of our most important accomplishments by signing an agreement for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq, and restoring the sovereignty that we lost more than two decades ago," he said.
"(The agreement) restores Iraq and its national sovereignty, preserves its wealth, and returns it to the international community as a free country."
The agreement was approved by the cabinet a week ago and is now virtually guaranteed to be ratified by Iraq's presidential council.
US President George W. Bush hailed parliament's approval of the "historic" agreement, saying in a statement that it "affirms the growth of Iraq's democracy and increasing ability to secure itself."
The measure would govern some 150,000 US troops stationed in over 400 bases when their UN mandate expires at the end of the year, giving the Iraqi government veto power over virtually all of their operations.
It marks a coming-of-age for Maliki's government, which drove a hard bargain with Washington, securing a number of concessions over nearly a year of tough negotiations.
The accord has still drawn fire from certain quarters, including followers of the hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who reject any agreement with the United States.
As the voting on the pact began, several Sadrist MPs pounded tables in a bid to hinder the vote, chanting "Yes, yes to Iraq... No, no, to the occupation," but the 30-member bloc failed to defeat the agreement.
The vote came after a flurry of last-minute negotiations in which the main Sunni parties secured a package of political reforms from the government and a commitment to hold a referendum on the pact no later than July 30.
Should the Iraqi government decide to cancel the pact after the referendum it would have to give Washington one year's notice, meaning that troops would be allowed to remain in the country only until the summer of 2010.
The international agreement will be binding on US president-elect Barack Obama when he assumes office next year, but he could also unilaterally cancel the pact with a year's notice or withdraw all US troops at any time.
The pact was made possible in part by dramatic improvements in security over the past year, with US and Iraqi forces largely containing the violence and the chaos that erupted in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion and Saddam's ouster.
But moments before the vote, two people were killed and more than two dozen wounded in separate suicide bombings in northern Iraq targeting local security forces, underscoring the lingering violence in the country.
In the bloodiest attack, south of the city of Mosul, a suicide car bomb rammed into a police patrol, killing two civilians and wounding 25 others, including 15 policemen, police said.
The US military considers Mosul the last urban bastion of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Iraq won a number of concessions in the agreement, including a hard timeline for withdrawal, the right to search US military cargo and the right to try US soldiers for crimes committed while they are off their bases and off-duty.
The agreement also requires that US troops obtain Iraqi permission for all military operations, and that they hand over the files of all detainees in US custody to the Iraqi authorities, who will decide their fate.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International warned after the vote that thousands of Iraqi detainees in US military prisons could face torture or execution at the hands of their own government.
The pact would meanwhile forbid US troops from making any further arrests without Iraqi authorisation.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »