BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's government has sought to quell criticism of a security pact that sets deadlines for U.S. military withdrawals, saying opponents could wait to judge how Washington honors commitments to pull back its troops.
The comments came after Iraq's influential top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, expressed reservations about the agreement, which paves the way for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi towns by mid-2009, and leave the country by the end of 2011.
Iraq's parliament approved the pact last week but said it should be put to a national referendum by the end of July.
"There will be an opportunity of six months...to test intentions, so that the U.S. can make this clear to the Iraqi side and it can be seen they are committed," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters. "We are optimistic of their commitment."
The so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) comes into effect at the beginning of next year.
Al-Sistani, whose approval of the deal is crucial, had earlier said he would not express an opinion on the pact and would leave it up to parliament to decide, as long as there was broad consensus in the event it was passed.
Iraq's 275-seat parliament passed the pact with a majority of 149 votes out of 198 lawmakers present. A last-minute deal with Sunni Arab parliamentarians -- whose approval was vital to ensure consensus -- led to the agreement to hold a referendum on the pact by the end of July.
However, a major concern of some lawmakers is a lack of guarantees that the United States will honor its pledges, such as withdrawing from cities next year and only conducting operations that have been authorized by Iraqis. The pact also curbs U.S. powers to arrest Iraqis.
Dabbagh said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, and a top U.S. military official met on November 29 to discuss implementing the pact after it is ratified by Iraq's president and two vice presidents, expected to be a formality.
Topics discussed included asking for the formal end of the United Nations mandate governing the U.S. presence in Iraq, which expires this year, and the handover of the fortified Green Zone military and government complex in Baghdad to Iraqi control.
The group also spoke about checks that must be made on some 15,000 Iraqi detainees in U.S. custody so that those without cases against them are freed, Dabbagh said, a key demand of Sunni lawmakers.
In addition, Iraq will ask the United Nations to safeguard Iraqi funds from compensation claims until it has had an opportunity to develop the legislation to deal with them. Some individuals and companies are seeking compensation for crimes committed under ex-dictator Saddam Hussein, who fled U.S.-led forces in March 2003 and was subsequently executed after a special court convicted him of grave crimes against Iraqi citizens.
"Iraqi funds are protected in the United States by a U.S. presidential veto, but funds outside the United States need a UN resolution to protect them. That is very important," Dabbagh said.