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Iraq cabinet wants changes in pact despite US warning

BAGHDAD (AFP) — Iraq's cabinet on Tuesday called for changes to a planned security pact with Washington despite a warning from the US military chief that time is running out for Baghdad to approve the deal.

But officials in Washington defended the draft agreement, with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warning of "pretty dramatic" consequences of not having an accord governing the presence of US troops in Iraq.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet met Tuesday to discuss the deal that will provide the basis for a US military presence in Iraq beyond this year and decided to seek modifications.

"The cabinet unanimously sought amendments to the text of the pact so it can be acceptable nationally," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said after the meeting, which was also attended by US representatives.

"The cabinet called on the ministers to submit their suggestions to be included in the negotiations with the US," he added.

The demand for changes, which were not specified, is expected to significantly delay the agreement, which still must be approved by the Iraqi parliament after endorsement by the cabinet.

Iraq's Al-Sharqiya television reported that ministers from both the largest Sunni block -- the National Concord Front -- and the ruling Shiite grouping, the United Iraqi Alliance, wanted amendments.

The cabinet decision came just hours after the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, bluntly warned that Iraq risked security losses of "significant consequence" unless it approved the deal.

Mullen also charged that US archfoe Iran was working hard to scuttle the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, after months of fraught negotiations.

"We are clearly running out of time," said Mullen, warning that when the current UN mandate governing the presence of foreign forces expires on December 31, the Iraqi military "will not be ready to provide for their security".

"And in that regard there is great potential for losses of significant consequence."

The White House later sought to play down the dispute, saying it was not surprising the pact had encountered difficulties.

"We knew it was going to take a little while to get this done," spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters in Washington.

But Defense Secretary Gates warned that there was little room for changes to the draft.

"The consequences of not having a SOFA and of not having a renewed UN authorization are pretty dramatic in terms of consequences for our actions," Gates told news wire reporters, including AFP.

He said there is "great reluctance" to entertain new changes as the US government consults with Congress on the current draft.

"If they (Baghdad or Congress) were to come up with something we haven't thought of, or identify problems we missed some way, we would have to take that seriously," Gates added.

"So I don't think you slam the door shut. But I would say it's pretty far closed."

Despite a series of US concessions, the pact remains hugely controversial in Iraq, with fierce opposition in some quarters, particularly the Shiite radical movement of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Even before the cabinet decision, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari sought to dampen expectations of a swift approval.

"It is unlikely that the Iraqi parliament will approve the SOFA before the American presidential election on November 4," Dubai-based Al-Arabiya News Channel reported Zebari as saying on its website.

"Because of the differences among the political groups, we don't believe the deal will be approved now. Iraq still hopes to sign this deal before the end of this year," he said.

Iraq's Political Council for National Security examined the agreement on Sunday and Monday and then forwarded it to the cabinet.

Under the latest draft, the United States will withdraw its combat forces from Iraqi towns by June 2009, with a complete pullout in 2011 -- eight years after the invasion that toppled now executed dictator Saddam Hussein.

In a US concession to assuage Baghdad's concerns over sovereignty, Iraqi courts would have the authority to try US soldiers and civilians for crimes committed outside their bases and when off-duty.

The US concessions fall far short of the demands by Sadr and his followers for an immediate and full withdrawal of US troops.

Sunni political groups, a minority in mainly Shiite Iraq, are concerned about an early US departure. But they too have expressed reservations about the pact by stressing the importance of respecting the nation's sovereignty.