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Iraq Minister: Strategic Mistake To Scrap U.S. Pact

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Scrapping a pact that would allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq for three years would be a strategic mistake that could jeopardise security gains in the country, Iraq's interior minister said.

The support of Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani for the pact could help rescue a deal which hit a snag last week when Iraq's government refused to back it without changes.

After months of talks, Washington and Baghdad hammered out a deal this month that gave Iraq important concessions, including a firm withdrawal date of 2011 and the power to try U.S. troops in its courts under some circumstances.

But days after reaching the agreement, the Iraqi cabinet announced that it intended to demand amendments, a move that exasperated Washington.

Iraqi officials say they will decide what amendments to seek after the interior, defence, finance, and other ministers make presentations to the cabinet this week. Bolani made clear his advice will be to support the pact.

Asked in an interview on Sharqiya television if he thought it would be a strategic mistake not to sign it, Bolani said: "Yes I believe so."

"Professionally, the interior and defence [ministries] must support [the pact]," he said. "I am talking about the achievements in security.... The achievements must be maintained by the Iraqi people."

Violence in Iraq is at four-year lows, and most of the country's security is now in the hands of Iraqi forces. But Washington says its roughly 150,000 troops are still needed to fight militants and prevent renewed outbreaks of violence.

Surprise Decision

The cabinet's decision to seek amendments to the pact came as a surprise last week, after Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari described it as a final text unlikely to be altered.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had hand-picked the team of senior advisers that negotiated it, but has yet to comment publicly on the text.

Approving the pact has proven politically difficult for the Shi'ite parties in Maliki's coalition, who face an election challenge early next year from followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, thousands of whom demonstrated against it.

The Shi'ite parties in Maliki's American-backed government have historic ties to Iran, which strongly opposes the pact. The decision is widely seen as requiring Shi'ites to choose between their new friends in Washington and their old friends in Tehran.

Bolani, the interior minister, is a Shi'ite, but a political independent unaffiliated with the parties in Maliki's coalition.

The U.S. force in Iraq now operates under a UN Security Council mandate that is set to expire at the end of this year.

Both sides say that replacing the UN mandate with a mandate bestowed by the Iraqi government would be an important step on Iraq's road to full sovereignty. But Iraqi officials say they will seek a 6-12 month extension of the UN mandate if they fail to agree a bilateral pact by the end of this year.

If neither a pact nor a Security Council extension is agreed by December 31, U.S. officials say their troops in Iraq will stop operating and stay on bases, halting everything from security patrols to airport traffic control.