BAGHDAD // The Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki's ruling Shiite coalition withheld support yesterday for the proposed security pact that would keep US troops here for three more years, dealing a setback to American hopes of a speedy approval of the agreement. The statement by the United Iraqi Alliance called for unspecified changes to the draft agreement, which parliament must ratify by the end of the year when the UN mandate expires. The group's move comes a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators, mostly Shiites, took to the streets of Baghdad to show their opposition to the agreement. The Shiite alliance holds 85 of parliament's 275 seats and Mr al Maliki needs solid support from the alliance to win approval of the agreement by a strong majority. The 30 lawmakers loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr have already said they will vote against the agreement, and some Sunni lawmakers have spoken out against it too. But the alliance represents the groups that profited the most from the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled their archenemy Saddam Hussein. The fact that it was hesitant to commit to the agreement underscores the ambivalent feelings many Iraqis have toward the Americans after five years of war. In its statement, the alliance said the agreement, hammered out in months of difficult negotiations, contained some "positive points" but more time was needed "for discussion, dialogue and to amend some of its articles". The alliance established a committee to solicit views and study the agreement in detail, the statement added. Mr Al Maliki's aide Yassin Majid said yesterday that the prime minister had postponed a planned visit this week to Australia to deal with the security agreement. The alliance did not specify what it considered positive or negative, and the foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari warned it would be difficult to reopen negotiations. The agreement provides for American troops to leave Baghdad and other Iraqi cities by the end of June and withdraw from the country entirely by the end of 2011 unless the government asks them to stay. It would also give Iraq limited authority to prosecute US soldiers and contractors for crimes committed off post and off duty, limit US authority to search homes and detain people and give Iraqis more say in the conduct of American military operations. Another of Mr al-Maliki's aides, Sami al-Askari, told reporters that several members of the alliance wanted to remove language allowing the government to ask any Americans to stay beyond the end of 2011. He also said some members wanted to know who would decide whether crimes committed by Americans met the standard for Iraqi trials.
Mr al Maliki said yesterday he would appoint a team soon to start discussions with Britain. "It is the time to build the best relationships with the countries that stood with Iraq against dictatorship in order to build a modern state," Mr al-Maliki said in a statement after meeting with the British defence secretary John Hutton. Mr al Maliki told The Times of London last week that British forces are no longer necessary to provide security but there may be a need for a few of them for training and technical issues.