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Iraq's Cabinet Approves Troops Pact With U.S.

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's cabinet approved a pact on November 16 that will allow U.S. forces to remain in the country until 2011, bringing an end to nearly a year of intense negotiations.

The pact must still be approved by the Iraqi parliament, but Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he expects that to happen before the end of the month.

The pact, which will govern the presence of U.S. forces beyond the end of this year, is now officially called an agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops, a sign of how Iraq's government has grown more confident over months of talks.

"The cabinet has just unanimously approved a deal between Iraq and the United States for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

The draft pact calls for U.S. forces to leave the streets of Iraq's towns and villages by the middle of next year and to leave the country by the end of 2011. It would place the U.S. force in Iraq under the authority of the Iraqi government for the first time, replacing a UN Security Council mandate.

The Iraqi government has grown increasing confident of its own ability to keep order as violence has dramatically reduced in the country over the past year. Iraqi forces now have command in all but five of Iraq's 18 provinces, and took the lead in a crackdown on Shi'ite militias earlier this year.

But Iraqi officials acknowledge they still need U.S. military support against Sunni militants in Baghdad and four northern provinces, as well as aid in logistics and firepower. The United States now has about 150,000 troops in Iraq.

The cabinet had balked at passing an earlier draft of the pact last month, instead submitting a request to Washington for amendments. Washington replied this month with what it called a final offer, removing language suggesting it might keep its troops on beyond the withdrawal date and adding a commitment not to launch attacks on neighboring states from Iraqi soil.

"There have been compromises that satisfied the Iraqi side," Zebari said. "Now we have a deal that we can defend. It will be published and distributed and all neighboring countries will have a copy of it."

Iraqi leaders consider the firm deadline for withdrawal to be a negotiating victory. The outgoing U.S. administration of President George W. Bush had long opposed setting any timetable for its troops to withdraw from Iraq.

Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Badr Organization, one of the main Shi'ite groups in al-Maliki's ruling coalition, said this week Iraqi politicians felt it would be easier to accept the pact after the election of Barack Obama, who favors withdrawal.

Iran, which has influence among Iraqi Shi'a, still opposes the pact, as do the followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.