U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have agreed on a draft of a security pact that would allow American troops to stay in Iraq for three more years after their U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31, a senior aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday, according to AP.
The aide said the draft could be put to a Cabinet vote in an emergency meeting Sunday or Monday. Transport Minister Amir Abdul-Jabbar said he had been notified by the Cabinet secretariat that a Cabinet meeting was scheduled for Sunday to vote on the agreement. If adopted by the Cabinet, it would then require parliamentary approval.
Also Saturday, a suicide car bomber struck a commercial district in the northern city of Tal Afar, killing 10 people and wounding 20, the U.S. military said. Iraqi police and hospital officials said seven people were killed and 32 wounded in the blast, which occurred near a used car lot. The discrepancy couldn't immediately be reconciled.
Tal Afar is near the volatile city of Mosul and has been the site of several recent bombings.
In Baghdad, a car bomb parked near the National Theater exploded in the mainly Shiite district of Karradah, killing at least five people and wounding 23, according to police and hospital officials.
Some of the casualties were people heading to see a play at the theater, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
The latest attacks highlighted the continuing threat to security in Iraq despite a sharp drop in violence since last year.
The U.S. military also said an American Marine died from wounds suffered in a roadside bombing west of Baghdad on Friday.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe described the final document on the security pact as beneficial to the allied nations.
"We think this is a good document that serves both Iraqis and Americans well. We remain hopeful that the Iraqi government will conclude this process soon," Johndroe said Saturday.
The al-Maliki aide, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the agreement stood "a good chance" of being passed by a two-thirds majority in the 37-member Cabinet.
"I can say now that the two sides have agreed on a final draft," the aide said.
Passage of the agreement in the Cabinet could bode well for how it fares in the 275-seat parliament, where it needs a simple majority to pass, since the political blocs in al-Maliki's government dominate the legislature.
The final step in the process of adopting the agreement would be the ratification of the parliamentary vote by President Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, and his two vice presidents - Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, and Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab.
The three met Saturday to review the final version of the agreement, according to Talabani's office.
The United States last week responded to Iraqi demands for changes in the text, which U.S. officials described as final and said it was up to the Iraqis to push the process further.
Al-Hashemi, the Sunni vice president, said Saturday that the United States made "additional modifications" to the agreement in response to a request by al-Maliki, according to Talabani's office.
Iraq has demanded guarantees for its right to try U.S. soldiers and defense contractors for serious crimes committed off-duty and off-base and to ensure that the United States does not use Iraqi territory to attack a neighboring country, like Iran or Syria.
It also wanted stronger language to clarify that U.S. troops cannot stay in Iraq after Dec. 31, 2011.
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, al-Maliki's senior coalition partner and the country's largest Shiite party, has said that it would only sign off on the agreement if it does not breach the country's sovereignty and is endorsed by the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
A senior official at al-Sistani's office in the holy city of Najaf said Friday that the Iranian-born cleric would "intervene" if the final draft infringed on sovereignty.
The comment suggested that al-Sistani was prepared to publicly declare his opposition to the agreement if he thought it hurt Iraq's national interests. Such a move would bury the deal or require another round of talks with fewer than seven weeks left before the U.N. mandate expires. Iraqi officials say they will seek the mandate's renewal if parliament does not approve the pact.
Two senior Shiite lawmakers close to al-Maliki traveled Saturday to the holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, for talks with al-Sistani in what appeared to be a last attempt to win his support. Ali al-Adeeb and Khalid al-Attiyah took with them a copy of the final draft of the agreement, according to an aide to al-Attiyah.