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Iraq leader defends US troop deal

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki
Nouri Maliki spoke for 10 minutes on television about the pact

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has defended the security pact with the US, saying it preserves Iraqi sovereignty.

Mr Maliki said there were no hidden clauses in the pact, and there would be no permanent US bases in Iraq nor cross-border attacks on neighbours.

The pact was approved by the cabinet on Sunday, but must be backed by the parliament before it can take effect.

The Iraqi government also announced that the first provincial elections since 2005 will be held on 31 January.

In a 10-minute televised address about the US agreement, Mr Maliki said: "I say to you with complete honesty that we have reservations about the agreement.

"But we at the same time see it as a solid prelude to the restoration of Iraq's full sovereignty in three years' time."

Under the deal, US troops will withdraw from the streets of Iraqi towns next year, with all 150,000 having left Iraq by the end of 2011.

It was necessary to determine the role of US military forces in Iraq after their UN mandate expires on 31 December 2008.

The main Shia and Kurdish alliances have agreed to support it, but politicians loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are strongly opposed.

Correspondents say Mr Maliki appears to have persuaded the country's most senior Shia cleric, the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, not to oppose the pact publicly.

On Tuesday, Reuters reported a statement from his office as saying: "The representatives of the Iraqi people in parliament must take on a big responsibility ... and each must be up to this historic responsibility before God and the people."

Provincial elections

The provincial elections will be the first such polls in Iraq for three years.

They are viewed by the US as an important step in the process of national reconciliation.

Many Sunni Arabs and some Shia groups boycotted the last provincial polls, leading to the election of what some Iraqis see as unrepresentative local councils.

The elections will take place in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces - but not in the three provinces of the autonomous Kurdish region, or in Kirkuk, whose status is disputed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans.



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