x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Key Iraqi cabinet members defend security agreement

Two key members of Iraq's cabinet defend a proposed agreement to keep US troops in the country for three more years.

BAGHDAD // Two key members of Iraq's cabinet yesterday defended a proposed agreement to keep US troops in the country for three more years, warning that failure to approve the deal in parliament would hurt the economy and endanger vital oil revenues. Ali Baban, the planning minister, and Bayan Jabr, the finance minister, said during a news conference that rejection of the pact in the 275-seat legislature could cause security problems that would deter investors and stall reconstruction efforts.

The government of Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, has struggled to rally broad support for the deal before a parliamentary vote on Wednesday, saying it is a better alternative to renewal of a UN mandate for the US troop presence that expires on Dec 31. Mr Maliki said the pact set a clear timetable for the withdrawal of US troops and placed them under strict Iraqi oversight. If the agreement doesn't pass, "there will be security problems that will have a negative impact on economic growth rates", Mr Baban said.

Yesterday, dozens of people gathered in Firdous Square in central Baghdad in a modest show of support for the pact. But opponents of the security agreement who are loyal to Muqtada al Sadr, the Shiite leader, put on a far more robust display on Friday, occupying the same square with about 20,000 demonstrators who demanded an immediate US withdrawal. Mr Jabr acknowledged that language pledging US protection for Iraqi assets could have been stronger. The assets are currently shielded by a UN Security Council resolution that expires at the end of the year. He said a new and "limited" UN resolution would be needed to protect the country's assets against judicial claims arising from actions dating to the era of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Under the agreement, the United States pledges to continue to protect Iraq's assets, held in two US-based, internationally supervised accounts. They are believed to hold more than $60 billion (Dh220bn). Revenues from Iraq's oil and gas exports, which account for at least 90 per cent of the country's income, are held in one of the two accounts, the so-called Development Fund for Iraq. The Iraqi government withdraws from that fund as required. It currently holds about $20 billion.

If Iraq heads into 2009 without the security agreement and the proposed UN resolution, Mr Jabr said, Iraq's US-based accounts would be left unprotected and they would likely be stripped by claimants armed with court rulings for billions of dollars in compensations. If that happens, he said, Iraq might have to fall back on the Saddam-era practise of selling oil outside legitimate market channels to deny claimants access to the proceeds. Saddam sold the oil illegally to circumvent a rigid regime of UN sanctions slapped on the country for invading Kuwait in 1990.

The sanctions were lifted soon after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. On Thursday, Abdul Qader al Obeidi, the Iraqi defence minister, warned that Iraq could risk internal and foreign attacks as well as piracy in the Gulf if US forces abruptly pulled out. The security pact emerged from nine months of tough talks between US and Iraqi negotiators, and the Iraqi cabinet approved it a week ago on the grounds that it provided a clear timetable for the withdrawal of US forces after more than five years of war. But many Iraqis see the pact as prolonging what they describe as a US occupation, even if some believe it is necessary to help Iraq's nascent security forces fight an insurgency that has suffered severe setbacks but still carries out regular attacks.

The proposed pact calls for US troops to pull out of Iraqi cities by June 30 and to leave the country by Jan 1 2012. It places US forces under tight Iraqi oversight and bars them from using Iraqi territory for attacks on neighbouring countries. Mr Maliki has said he wanted the deal approved by consensus, and Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the country's most influential Shiite cleric, has indicated the pact will be acceptable only if it wins passage in the legislature by a big majority.

The government can muster just over 140 votes if it gets the support of all the legislators in parliament's main Shiite and Kurdish blocs, the key partners in Mr Maliki's coalition. That would be only a few votes above the simple majority threshold. Picking up the 44 seats of the government's Sunni Arab partners, the Iraqi Accordance Front, could give the government the emphatic margin of victory it seeks. But leaders of the bloc are making their approval conditional on reforms to give their minority community a bigger say in running the country. * Associated Press