Page last updated at 01:06 GMT, Friday, 28 November 2008

Iraq a step closer to US departure

By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC News, Baghdad

Iraqi parliamentarians vote on the US troop deal
The parliamentarian vote was delayed by a day

The agreement to withdraw US troops from Iraq by 2011, and severely curtail their powers from the beginning of next year, is hugely symbolic for the Iraqi government.

Instead of the US forces being here under a United Nations mandate, they are deployed under a bilateral agreement between two sovereign powers.

The last-minute negotiations that delayed by a day the parliamentary vote to accept the deal on the future presence of US troops also symbolised that Iraq is becoming a working democracy.

Issues are being decided by elected parliamentarians, not by gunmen on the streets.

The government was keen to win the support of MPs from the Sunni minority, so that the plan could be seen to have a national consensus rather than to have been steamrolled through by the mainstream Shia parties.

Popular vote

As part of the concessions, the government agreed to hold a referendum in the middle of next year on whether Iraqis as a whole approve the plan.

It it fails, Iraq may well ask the Americans to pull out their troops earlier.

A US soldier in Iraq
Under the deal US troops will withdraw by 2011

The first months of next year, then, will be the beginning of a test run as to how much the US forces can hold back and how much the newly trained Iraqi forces can take over the job of ending the violence.

Swathes of the country have already been handed over to Iraqi control, although the US continues to provide crucial intelligence and logistics support. In many cases special-forces teams are embedded with the Iraqi troops as advisers and mentors.

But their presence is almost invisible.

Although violence has dropped, the war here is far from over.

The hard-line Shia group - the Sadrists, whose political links lead back to gunmen from the Mehdi army - voted against the withdrawal pact, arguing that American troops should be expelled immediately.

At present, the Shia militia has an agreed ceasefire with the Iraqi government.

On the other side, the Sunni al-Qaeda in Iraq still continues to operate in Baghdad and the north of the country.

Neither group has agreed to end violence completely or accepts the authority of the government.

Sunni politicians, however, failed to win concessions on several issues concerning the representation of the Sunni community in a reconciled Iraq.

They wanted a special tribunal dealing with crimes committed when Saddam Hussein was in power disbanded, and more freedom given to former members of Saddam's Baath Party in getting jobs.

The Sunni parties will use the next few months before the referendum to try to win more concessions on these and other issues. Perhaps the most pressing is the future of about 100,000 Sunni militiamen from the Awakening Councils that at present support the US and Iraqi governments.

Many used to be insurgents - and key to Iraq's success is that they do not go down that road again.

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