BAGHDAD (AFP) — The Iraqi cabinet will vote on a controversial military pact to govern the presence of US troops in the country on either Saturday or Sunday, Iraq's finance minister said.
"We received the last draft from the Americans and now it is being discussed between the American and the Iraqi committees and the prime minister's office," Baqer Jabr Solagh told AFP on Wednesday.
"The cabinet will meet (Saturday or Sunday) to see the last draft and then the cabinet will vote ... They have to vote, yes or no."
Baghdad and Washington have been racing to agree on a pact ahead of the December 31 expiry of the UN mandate governing the presence of the 140,000 US troops currently stationed in the country.
The most recent draft stipulates that American forces will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and from the country by the end of 2011, and contains amendments made by the Americans in response to Iraqi demands made last month.
"The deliberations are continuing in the cabinet in order to ascertain the scope of the amendments that have been added in order to reach a clear agreement and to see if it is acceptable to parliament," Safaldin al-Safi said. "The American response contained many positive elements, but at the same time it contained clauses that require more discussion," the head of Iraq's parliamentary affairs committee said in a statement Tuesday.
Should the cabinet vote to accept the agreement it would then go to parliament for final approval.
The signing of the so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has been repeatedly delayed despite several months of negotiations, and the draft agreement has drawn fire from leaders of Iraq's majority Shiite community.
On October 28 the cabinet met to decide on the agreement but instead asked Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to demand further changes from Washington.
National security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie said last week Iraq had proposed "110 changes" and received "responses," including an agreement to remove a clause which could have allowed US troops to remain after 2011.
The United States has insisted that the current draft is the final text and on Tuesday the embassy declined to say whether more talks were in the offing.
The Baghdad edition of the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that the Americans have agreed to three of five changes proposed by Iraq, including allowing Iraqis to inspect incoming and outgoing US parcels.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki assured Arab countries in a letter on Monday that the agreement had met Iraq's demand that its territory not be used as a launch pad for any attacks on neighbouring countries.
US negotiators were however reluctant to further ease the immunity offered to soldiers, after already agreeing to allow Iraq to prosecute American troops and civilians if they commit serious crimes outside their bases when off-duty.
Iraq wants to be able to prosecute them for crimes conducted on their bases as well.
A failure to agree on the current draft would raise a new set of thorny problems for both Washington and Baghdad, starting with the need to request a new mandate from the UN Security Council.
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