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Iraq PM Says US Troops Will Leave If No Pact

Prime Minister al-Maliki is working to persuade skeptics that the deal represents a return of national sovereignty for Iraq.
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq will not seek to extend the UN mandate of U.S. troops and they will pull out immediately if Iraqi parliament fails to approve a pact allowing them to stay until 2011, Iraq's prime minister said on November 23.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was speaking after Iraq's leaders met with recalcitrant politicians the same day to try to persuade them to accept the pact, which gives the United States three years to phase out a military presence that started with a 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

"Extending the presence of the international forces on Iraqi soil will not be our alternative," Maliki told journalists. "The alternative will be their immediate withdrawal from Iraq."

Leaders of every major political bloc apart from followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr attended late evening talks behind closed doors, as the government struggled to win broad acceptance of the pact.

The meetings ended without a final resolution, said Hassan al-Shimmari, the leader in parliament of the Shi'ite Fadhila party, one of the factions opposed to the pact.

"It was agreed the heads should meet tomorrow and every bloc present demands ... as recommendations to be voted on," al-Shimmari said.

Maliki and other cabinet ministers have fervently defended the pact, arguing that it is Iraq's best hope for restoring sovereignty while avoiding the bloody chaos of recent years.

"An immediate withdrawal would not be in Iraq's interests," al-Maliki told the late night news conference. Many Iraqis have assumed Iraq's only alternative was an extension of the existing UN mandate, which ends on December 31, given the security challenges it still faces.