Iraq drafts law letting British troops stay in 2009

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi cabinet drafted a law on Tuesday allowing troops from Britain, Australia and a few other countries to remain beyond the end of this year, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

The law will cover the temporary presence in Iraq of the troops once a U.N. mandate expires next year, while paving the way for their withdrawal as violence subsides in Iraq nearly six years after the U.S.-led invasion.

The agreement with Britain, Australia, Romania, Estonia, El Salvador and NATO, must be ratified by parliament, which has approved a U.S.-Iraq security pact that allows the 140,000 or so U.S. troops to remain in the country for three more years.

It was not immediately clear under what timeframe the much smaller contingents from the other countries would be required to withdraw, but a lawmaker in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s parliamentary bloc said he believed it was within seven months.

“The cabinet approved a bill for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, Australia, Romania, Estonia, El Salvador and NATO, and to organize their activities during their temporary presence in Iraq,” Dabbagh said in a statement issued by his office.

While car bombings and suicide blasts remain common, the wave of sectarian bloodshed and insurgent attacks that followed the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein has begun to ease.

As Iraqi police and soldiers take on greater responsibility for security, the countries that joined what outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush called the “coalition of the willing” have begun to go home.

A ceremony for departing members of the Albanian and Moldovan armies on Thursday will mark the departure of the last of the coalition members who do not intend to stay past the U.N. mandate, U.S. military said on Tuesday.

The only ones remaining will be the U.S. force, which always constituted the bulk of coalition troops, and the others listed in the draft law drawn up by the cabinet on Tuesday.

Britain once had 20,000 soldiers in Iraq, but only 4,100 remain, mainly based around the southern oil city of Basra.

London has said it would like to pull most out by the middle of next year, leaving behind a small training force.

The law governing their continued presence beyond the end of the year will need to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.

The U.S.-Iraq security pact was fiercely opposed by some parliamentary blocs and was only passed after Maliki’s Shi’ite-led coalition agreed to subject it to a referendum next year.

As Britain withdraws from Iraq, it is expected to focus on its role in Afghanistan, where the conflict has worsened in the past six months, with the Taliban and other militant groups stepping up bomb attacks and ambushes.

Writing by Michael Christie; editing by Andrew Roche