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Iraqi cabinet agrees changes to U.S. security deal

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s cabinet agreed on Tuesday on amendments it will propose to a deal allowing U.S. troops to stay in the country, the government’s spokesman said, adding the changes would cover the pact’s substance as well as wording.

A U.S soldier walks out of a vehicle during a patrol in a village near Baquba, in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, October 26, 2008. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki “has been authorized to put forward the amended version to the Americans,” Ali al-Dabbagh said after Tuesday’s cabinet meeting had concluded.

Asked if the amendments were to the wording, Dabbagh said, “Wording yes and some to the content.”

The prospect of additional changes to the pact, which will provide a legal basis for the approximately 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq once a United Nations mandate expires on December 31, will likely be met with further exasperation by Washington.

After months of intense negotiations, it appeared as late as last week that a finalized agreement was on its way to the Iraqi parliament for a vote.

But fierce debate among Iraq’s political class, and the proposed amendments agreed upon on Tuesday, underscore the deep divisions about the foreign military presence more than five years after 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.

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The United States has indicated that it would listen to proposals for minor adjustments in the pact’s wording but does not want to renegotiate the substance of the accord.

Yet even if proposed changes are agreed by both sides, the deal is likely to face major opposition in Iraq’s parliament.

Lawmakers loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada 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.

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A U.S. raid into Syria on Sunday, 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 called an act of “terrorist aggression,” may fan fears within Iraq over heavy-handed U.S. operations even as violence drops sharply.

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.

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 U.N. mandate, or alternative in place.

Iraqi officials have said they prefer not to resort to an extension of the U.N. 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 U.S. troops even if no deal is reached by the end of the year.

Additional reporting and writing by Missy Ryan