BAGHDAD - Iraq's parliament on Thursday approved a landmark security pact with the United States that paves the way for U.S. forces to withdraw by the end of 2011, taking the country a big step closer to full sovereignty.
The deal, which parliament linked after days of fractious negotiations to a series of promised political reforms and a public referendum next year, brings in sight an end to the U.S. military presence that began with the 2003 invasion.
It will make Iraqi police and soldiers increasingly responsible for security after years of bloodshed between majority Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein and initially allied with al Qaeda fighters battling U.S. forces.
"The wishes of different sections of the Iraqi nation have been executed, and this achievement will turn a new page of Iraq's history and will consecrate its sovereignty," said parliament's first deputy speaker Khalid al-Attiya.
Lawmakers in Iraq's 275 seat parliament passed the deal with a majority of 149 out of 198 present, Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said.
The vote had been postponed from Wednesday due to acrimonious negotiations over demands from Sunni groups that were largely unrelated to the pact. Officials said several car bomb blasts in Baghdad this week were aimed at deterring the ballot. It was not immediately clear if the vote constituted enough of a consensus to satisfy the demands of Iraq's influential top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who had called for it to be supported by all of the country's communities.
But the deal linking the security pact to other issues, such as the referendum, was agreed between the country's ruling Shi'ite-led coalition, its Kurdish partners and two Sunni Arab factions that had been holding up the vote.
OPPOSED TO LAST
The other issues agreed on related to speeding up the release of mainly Sunni detainees captured by the United States at the height of the sectarian violence, and working on a balance between the powers of government and security forces.
The agreement was opposed to the last by lawmakers loyal to firebrand Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who held up banners and loudly chanted, "No, no to the pact. Yes, yes to Iraq," as parliament voted.
The Sadrists, who demand an immediate U.S. withdrawal, have not been assuaged by the deal to allow the Iraqi people to hold a public referendum on the security pact next year.
"The referendum is a lie to satisfy some parties with reservations," said one member of the Sadr movement, deputy Aqeel Abdul-Hussein.
The popular vote, if it takes place, will be organised under separate legislation and should by held by the end of July next year, Iraqi officials said.
"I think it is dangerous but again leadership is there to lead," Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said of the referendum before the vote had taken place. "I believe there is sufficient support for (the pact to pass a referendum)," he told Reuters.
Under the deal agreed with the outgoing administration of President George W. Bush, U.S. troops will have to pull out of Iraqi cities by the middle of next year and leave the country by the end of 2011.
It replaces an expiring U.N. mandate. The deal gives Iraq authority over about 150,000 U.S. troops in the country, makes U.S. soldiers liable for some crimes committed when they are off duty, and reins in private security firms.
It is expected to boost Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's prestige and stature, by allowing him to continue to call on U.S. forces to fight violence while at the same time taking credit for arranging their eventual withdrawal.
"We welcome today's approval by Iraq's council of representatives of the strategic framework and the security agreement ... Taken together, these two agreements formalise a strong and equal partnership between the United States and Iraq," the U.S. embassy said in a statement.