Baghdad Iraq's Cabinet will vote today on a security pact that would keep U.S. forces in the country for another three years, a major step in efforts to balance Iraqi demands for national sovereignty with the security concerns of the two allies.
In a bid to secure support for the agreement from the country's top Shiite cleric, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Saturday dispatched two senior lawmakers to see Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, with a copy of the pact's final draft.
A senior official at al-Sistani's office said the cleric told the two legislators - Khalid al-Attiyah and Ali al-Adeeb - that the document represented "the best available option" for Iraq, signaling that he would not object to it if the Cabinet and later parliament approve it.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said al-Sistani indicated to al-Attiyah and al-Adeeb that he wanted the agreement to pass by a comfortable majority in the 275-seat parliament.
Al-Sistani commands enormous influence with Iraq's majority Shiites. The Iranian-born cleric does not speak to reporters, communicating his views through edicts or leaks from his office. His public silence on a major policy decision is often taken to mean he has no objections.
Al-Attiyah said al-Sistani had stressed the need for "national accord" over the agreement. Al-Adeeb said "His eminence, al-Sistani, is comforted by the thoroughness of Iraqi officials who shoulder the responsibility of safeguarding national interests."
The U.N. mandate covering the presence of U.S. and other foreign forces in Iraq expires Dec. 31, and failure to pass the agreement would leave Iraq with little choice but to seek a renewal of the mandate.
A series of bombings Saturday pointed to the fragility of security gains in the past year. The violence also was likely to strengthen the argument of the pact's proponents, including the interior and defense ministers, that there is still a need for U.S. forces.
In Tal Afar, a suicide car bombing struck a commercial district, killing nine Iraqis and wounding 40, according to the U.S. military. Iraqi police and hospital officials said seven people were killed and up to 32 were wounded. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.
In Baghdad, a bomb in a parked car exploded near the National Theater in the mainly Shiite district of Karradah, killing at least five and wounding 23, according to police and hospital officials. Some victims were heading to the theater to see a political satire, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
The U.S. military, however, said reports indicated no deaths but 19 civilians wounded in the Baghdad bombing.