BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Cabinet will vote today on a security pact with Washington that would keep U.S. forces in the country for another three years, a major step in efforts to balance Iraqi demands for national sovereignty with the security concerns of the two allies.
In a bid to secure support for the agreement from the country’s top Shiite cleric, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Saturday dispatched two senior lawmakers to see Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, with a copy of the final draft.
A senior official at al-Sistani’s office said the cleric told the legislators that the document represented “the best available option” for Iraq, signaling that he would not object to it if the Cabinet and later parliament approve it.
The official said al-Sistani indicated to them that he wanted the agreement to pass by a comfortable majority in the 275-seat parliament.
Al-Sistani commands enormous influence with Iraq’s majority Shiites. The Iranian-born cleric does not speak to reporters, communicating his views through edicts or leaks from his office.
Lawmaker Khalid al-Attiyah said al-Sistani had stressed the need for “national accord” over the agreement. While lawmaker Ali al-Adeeb said “His eminence, al-Sistani, is comforted by the thoroughness of Iraqi officials who shoulder the responsibility of safeguarding national interests.”
The U.N. mandate covering the presence of U.S. and other foreign forces in Iraq expires Dec. 31, and failure to pass the agreement would leave Iraq with little choice but to seek a renewal of the mandate.
A series of bombings Saturday pointed to the fragility of security gains in the past year. The violence also was likely to strengthen the argument of the pact’s proponents, including the interior and defense ministers, that there is still a need for U.S. forces.
In Tal Afar, a suicide car bombing struck a commercial district, killing nine Iraqis and wounding 40, according to the U.S. military. Iraqi police and hospital officials said seven people were killed and up to 32 were wounded.
In Baghdad, a bomb in a parked car exploded near the National Theater in the mainly Shiite district of Karradah, killing at least five and wounding 23, according to police and hospital officials. Some victims were heading to the theater to see a political satire, said the officials.
The U.S. military, however, said initial reports indicated no deaths but 19 civilians wounded in the Baghdad bombing. It also said a suicide bomber in a vehicle in the northern city of Mosul injured 13 Iraqis on Saturday, and that a U.S. Marine died from wounds suffered in a roadside bombing west of Baghdad on Friday.
Also Saturday, two American soldiers died when a helicopter made a “hard landing” after hitting wires in Mosul, the U.S. military said. It said the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter went down because of an accident and that there was no enemy fire in the area.
Mosul is a flashpoint of insurgent activity that has defied stepped up efforts by U.S. and Iraqi forces to bring stability. The attacks Saturday raise questions about the preparedness of Iraqi forces and back assertions by proponents of the security pact that they still need American help.
A close aide to al-Maliki and two Cabinet ministers said Iraqi and U.S. negotiators have agreed on a final draft of the security pact and that it would be put to a vote in an emergency Cabinet meeting today.
The aide said the pact stood “a good chance” of being passed by a two-thirds majority in the 37-member Cabinet and that the final draft was reached after “intense” contacts between the American and Iraqi sides.