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Iraqi Cabinet Discusses Changes To U.S. Security Deal

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's cabinet discussed changes to a hard-fought security pact with the United States on October 28, as political opposition to the pact grows in Baghdad and U.S. officials warn time is running short for agreement.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said ministers were considering proposed amendments to the pact, which would allow U.S. troops to remain in the country through 2011.

After the meeting, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki "will be authorized to put forward the amendments, through his negotiating team, to the American side," Dabbagh said.

The accord, which would provide a legal basis for the U.S. presence in Iraq once the current UN mandate expires on December 31, appeared to have reached a final version last week after months of intense bilateral negotiations.

But ongoing cabinet debate about possible changes underscores the deep divisions among Iraqi politicians about the foreign military presence, five years on from the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Washington has made major concessions in the talks, agreeing to withdraw troops by the end of 2011 and allowing Iraqi courts to try American troops for serious crimes committed off duty. Now it is watching renewed debate in Baghdad with exasperation.

Yet even after the cabinet has approved any of the proposed amendments, the agreement is likely to face significant opposition in parliament.

Lawmakers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr pledge to vote against the pact, while support will also be difficult for other Shi'ite parties that have strong ties with Iran, which strongly opposes the deal.

The country's biggest Sunni Arab party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, announced it would cut ties with the United States last week after a party member was killed in a U.S. raid. Minority Kurds are supportive.

Washington has indicated that it would listen to proposals for minor adjustments in wording but does not want to renegotiate the substance of the accord.

As the clock ticks, U.S. officials have begun to issue warnings about what may occur if there is no security deal, extension of the UN mandate, or alternative in place.

Iraqi officials have said they prefer not to resort to an extension of the UN mandate, but could do so if needed.

The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad told a U.S. newspaper last week that a lack of a legal basis for U.S. operations in Iraq would mean "we do nothing -- no security training, no logistical support, no border protection, no training, equipping, manning checkpoints, no nothing."

In a meeting with Iraqi officials last week, U.S. military officials provided a list of activities that would become impossible on January 1 under such a scenario on behalf of General Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said Major Joe Edstrom, a spokesman for Odierno.

Officials have not been discussing an immediate departure of the U.S. 150,000 troops even if no deal is reached by the end of the year.

A U.S. raid into Syria on October 26, which may have killed a man believed to be helping foreign fighters enter Iraq, could complicate the deal's prospects even further.

The raid, which Syria said killed eight civilians and called an act of "terrorist aggression," may fan fears within Iraq over heavy-handed U.S. military operations even as violence drops sharply and Iraqi security forces assume a greater role.

It may also strengthen opposition from politicians close to Iran, which has long argued the pact would give the United States a launching pad for operations across the Middle East.