BAGHDAD — Iraqi political leaders met Sunday and forwarded a U.S.-Iraq security pact to the Cabinet for discussion without endorsing the agreement, which concerns the length of time American troops can remain in Iraq.
Officials of the ruling Shiite political bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, said they still want some revisions in the language of the document, which now says U.S. forces must leave Iraq by the end of 2011, unless Iraq asks them to stay on. But Iraqi officials Sunday did not make it clear what revisions they want in the pact, which must be signed by year's end, when the United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S. presence in Iraq expires.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki had emphasized that the agreement should be debated by the Political Council for National Security before being sent to the Cabinet for approval. The council met Sunday night, but the meeting ended with neither the main Shiite Muslim nor Sunni Arab factions endorsing the pact.
Nonetheless, it was decided that discussions would begin Tuesday before the country's Cabinet, the final stop before a vote in parliament.
Further muddying the waters, one senior official, Nasser Ani, the chief of staff of Iraq's presidency council, said the council would continue to review the text.
"The Cabinet session [on Tuesday] will be for studying it, not voting on it," Ani said. "The Political Council for National Security will continue to discuss it as well."
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for the agreement, which would set conditions for the status of U.S. forces in Iraq after Dec. 31, is the absence of prominent voices supporting the deal, which could provide the foundation for a long-term strategic relationship with the Americans.
"Till now Sunnis haven't declared their stance. The Kurds are supporting the agreement and the [Shiite bloc] has notes about [possible revisions or clarifications of] some of the text," said Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir, a senior Shiite lawmaker.
Saghir advised the Americans to heed the Iraqis' advice. "If they want acceptance definitely, they have to listen to others. Otherwise we'll be heading toward a closed door," he said.
He refused to speculate on when the agreement would go before parliament. "It's difficult to talk about. These are negotiations. Sometimes it progresses, sometimes not," he said.
The United Iraqi Alliance said it had objections regarding wording in the draft agreement. Ali Adeeb, a senior official in Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, said the bloc would propose revisions to American negotiators and that it was confident the Americans would accept language regarding matters of sovereignty.
"What we want is to have clearer terms because the agreement might be used for something other than Iraq's interest. We want clear articles that would serve sovereignty," Adeeb said.
"I don't think there will be need for new discussions," he said.
Adeeb said he expected the Shiite bloc would submit the changes within two to three days. "Then we'll wait for the American side response to it. We think that the current draft is not acceptable," he said.
United Iraqi Alliance representatives met Saturday at the compound of Sheik Abdelaziz Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest group in the bloc. Hakim's party had been one of the early proponents of a long-term strategic alliance with the United States.
The proposed revisions reflected nervousness among Shiite politicians at being associated too closely with a deal that could lead rivals to accuse them of working for American interests, something that might hurt their prospects in provincial elections scheduled to take place before the end of January.
Iran, which has close ties with Hakim's group and is credited by some UIA members with helping broker their alliance in 2005, has spoken out against the proposed pact. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr also has raised the pressure by holding weekly protests against a security deal.
The last week saw a series of high-level meetings between Maliki and his fellow leaders, including Kurdistan regional President Massoud Barzani, President Jalal Talabani and Vice Presidents Tariq Hashimi and Adel Abdul Mehdi.
Although the current text provides a calendar for U.S. military withdrawal, it also grants American soldiers immunity from Iraqi law in a majority of situations. Many Iraqi lawmakers are unhappy with the protections that U.S. forces would have from the Iraqi court system.