Iraq's Cabinet on Sunday approved a security pact with the United States that will allow American forces to stay in Iraq for three years after their U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
The decision followed months of difficult negotiations and, pending parliamentary approval, will remove a major point of contention between the two allies. Parliament's deputy speaker, Khalid al-Attiyah, said he expected the 275-member legislature to begin debating the document this week and vote on it by November 24.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said all but one of the 28 Cabinet ministers present in Sunday's meeting, in addition to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, voted for the pact by a show of hands.
The Cabinet has 37 members and it was not immediately clear why some ministers stayed away. Several of them were believed to be traveling abroad.
"This is an important and positive step," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Adam Ereli.
Violence continues to plague parts of Iraq despite a dramatic improvement in security over the past year, and the attacks underscore the notion that Iraq's nascent security forces still need U.S. backing to counter the insurgency.
Hours after the Cabinet approved the security pact, seven people died and seven were wounded in a suicide car bombing Sunday at a police checkpoint in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, according to police Col. Ahmed Khalifa, chief of Jalula police station. The dead included one police officer.
The U.S. military said the attack in Jalula occurred at a police station and that four police and six civilians died. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy in the reports, nor any indication that the attack was linked to the Cabinet vote.
Parliament is due to go into recess at the end of the month or in early December because of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, when scores of lawmakers travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the annual pilgrimage. Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani canceled all leave for lawmakers and suspended foreign and out-of-town visits to ensure that the house secures a quorum for the security pact vote, al-Attiyah said.
"I'm optimistic that this agreement will be passed through the Council of Representatives (parliament)," spokesman al-Dabbagh told Associated Press Television News. But he added: "You cannot guarantee 100 percent approval of anything."
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