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Monday, April 14, 2008

REUTERS: Iraq to seek parliamentary approval for long-term U.S. pact

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq will seek parliamentary approval for a strategic agreement being negotiated with the United States even though it expects heated debate over the deal, Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said.

U.S. and Iraqi officials began talks last month on a strategic framework agreement that defines long-term bilateral ties and a separate "status of forces" deal outlining rules and protections governing U.S. military activity in Iraq.

The issue has become highly charged in Washington, with members of Congress saying it could tie the hands of the next administration by locking the United States into a long-term military presence in Iraq and arguing Congress should give its consent.

Zebari, speaking to Reuters on Sunday, said the first round of negotiations had been completed.

U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad have said they aim to finish negotiations by July, well before the next U.S. president is elected on November 4.

"There isn't any hidden agenda here. This agreement will be transparent, it has to be presented to the representatives of the Iraqi people, the parliament, to ratify it," he said.

"I'm sure there will be some heated political debate when we come to that but I think on the other hand there is a strong will by the mainstream leadership in this country that this is for Iraq's good. We need that continued engagement."

The deal is sure to be rejected by the movement of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which has 30 seats in the 275-member parliament. Sadr pulled his movement out of the government last year over Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's refusal to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has repeatedly said it will keep Congress informed about the negotiations but not ask for its agreement.

Both Republican and Democrat senators said last week they may try to force the White House to seek its approval.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, told Congress last week that the deal would not establish permanent bases in Iraq nor specify the number of forces to be stationed in Iraq.

Zebari said both sides hoped to meet that deadline, adding talks would resume soon. The first round was highly technical, he said, without giving details.

U.S. forces operate in Iraq under a United Nations mandate that expires at the end of 2008. Iraq does not want that mandate extended, so the two governments must agree guidelines to allow U.S. forces to remain beyond the end of this year.