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Page last updated at 01:07 GMT, Monday, 20 October 2008 02:07 UK

New bid to seal Iraq troop deal

US troops in Baghdad
The issue of immunity for US troops divided Baghdad and Washington

Political leaders in Iraq have held a late-night session to discuss a draft security pact with the US which would see it withdraw its troops by 2011.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters that the meeting of the Political Council for National Security had finished without making a decision.

Some leaders were "still hesitant to approve or reject" the deal, he said.

Earlier, the main Shia Muslim alliance in the Iraqi coalition government said it would seek to make changes to it.

I am extremely proud of what our forces have achieved
John Hutton
UK Defence Secretary

It is also strongly opposed by the faction led by the radical Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who brought thousands of supporters onto the streets of Baghdad on Saturday in protest.

The US and Iraqi governments have previously said the pact is final and cannot be amended - only accepted or rejected by the Iraqi parliament.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has postponed a planned trip to Australia to allow him to continue the discussions.

'Clarification'

Mr Maliki's efforts to gain official approval for the draft from the Political Council for National Security late on Sunday night appeared to have failed after the meeting reportedly ended without agreement.

Nouri Maliki and Jalal Talabani in Baghdad (17 October 2008)
Iraqi political leaders have described the security agreement as "final"

The council - composed of the president, the two vice presidents, the speaker of parliament and leaders of the political factions - was scheduled to hear from military figures.

"They just finished the meeting and they did not take a decision on the pact because some groups had reservations," Mr Dabbagh, the prime minister's official spokesman, told the Reuters news agency afterwards.

Mr Dabbagh said the only the group to have endorsed the draft without any reservations were the main Kurdish groups - President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

"Other groups were saying there are some positive points in the pact, but others that need clarification," he said.

Among the issues needing to be clarified was the mechanism for allowing Iraq to prosecute US troops and contractors accused of serious crimes, he added.

Prosecution fears

Despite US and Iraqi political leaders describing the deal as "final" and difficult to renegotiate, the concerns of the main Shia Muslim alliance in the coalition government have cast doubt on whether it will be approved by parliament.

Besides the positive points that were included in this pact, there are other points that need more time, more discussion, more dialogue and amendments to some articles
United Iraqi Alliance

"Besides the positive points that were included in this pact, there are other points that need more time, more discussion, more dialogue and amendments to some articles," the United Iraqi Alliance said in a statement.

A committee has been formed to study the draft agreement in detail.

The UIA, which includes the Dawa party of Prime Minister Maliki and the rival Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), is reported to have reservations about seven elements of the deal, although details have not yet been made clear.

The BBC's Jim Muir, in Baghdad, says issue of immunity for US military personnel and contractors is thought to be one of the key sticking points.

The pact is said to grant Iraqi judicial authorities limited ability to try US troops and contractors for major crimes committed off-duty or off-base - and only then if a joint US-Iraqi committee agreed.

Supporters of Moqtada Sadr march in Baghdad (18 October 2008)
The streets of Baghdad were busy with protesters on Saturday

The government in Baghdad believes the current immunity from Iraqi prosecution by granted to US troops and contractors by the former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) undermines Iraqi sovereignty.

There are also concerns about the provisional date of 2009 set for US withdrawals from Iraqi towns and cities, and the date of 2011 for withdrawing from Iraq as a whole, our correspondent says.

On Saturday an estimated 50,000 supporters of the cleric, Moqtada Sadr, marched in Baghdad in opposition to the deal and to call for US troops to leave Iraq.

But our correspondent says it is not yet clear if the United Iraqi Alliance's concerns amount to a serious challenge to the agreement.

The draft in its current form was agreed after lengthy negotiations between Baghdad and Washington, and the US is thought to see the deal as a "take it or leave it" package.

The current UN mandate for US-led coalition forces expires at the end of this year. About 144,000 of the 152,000 foreign troops deployed there are US military personnel.

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