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Iraq PM says U.S. troops will leave if no pact

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq will not seek to extend the U.N. mandate of U.S. troops and they will pull out immediately if Iraqi parliament fails to approve a pact allowing them to stay until 2011, Iraq’s prime minister said on Sunday.

A pupil talks to a U.S. soldier of 4th Battalion, 42nd Field Artillery guarding the opening of a new primary school in central Baghdad's Yarmouk district November 23, 2008. REUTERS/Bassim Shati

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was speaking after Iraq’s leaders met with recalcitrant politicians on Sunday to try to persuade them to accept the pact, which gives the United States three years to phase out a military presence that started with a 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

“Extending the presence of the international forces on Iraqi soil will not be our alternative,” Maliki told journalists. “The alternative will be their immediate withdrawal from Iraq.”

Leaders of every major political bloc apart from followers of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr attended late evening talks behind closed doors on Sunday, as the government struggled to win broad acceptance of the pact.

The meetings ended without a final resolution, said Hassan al-Shimmari, the leader in parliament of the Shi’ite Fadhila party, one of the factions opposed to the pact.

“It was agreed the heads should meet tomorrow and every bloc present demands ... as recommendations to be voted on,” he said.

Maliki and other cabinet ministers have fervently defended the pact, arguing that it is Iraq’s best hope for restoring sovereignty while avoiding the bloody chaos of recent years.

“An immediate withdrawal would not be in Iraq’s interests,” Maliki told the late night news conference. Many Iraqis have assumed Iraq’s only alternative was an extension of the existing U.N. mandate, which ends on December 31, given the security challenges it still faces.

Parliament has been debating the proposed pact after cabinet approved it last Sunday. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote on it on Wednesday, before setting off for a holiday recess.

Large Shi’ite and Kurdish parties that support Maliki may have enough votes to pass the pact, but to win a broad consensus they need to win over Sunni Arabs and smaller parties.

The Sadrists, who have been isolated from the political mainstream since a government crackdown on their Mehdi Army militia this year, oppose any extension of the U.S. presence. Thousands of their supporters marched against the pact on Friday.

They have 30 seats in the 275 seat legislature.

All other groups say they back a pact in principle. But some, including the main Sunni Arab group, the Accordance Front, have reservations about the text thrashed out over nearly a year of painstaking negotiations between Baghdad and Washington.

Several have indicated they may not approve it or turn up, prompting dire warnings from the government of a return to the violence that threatened to tear Iraq apart after the invasion.

Influential Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who could sink the pact if he disapproved of it, has said it is up to parliament to decide. But he says the pact should have the support of all of Iraq’s communities.

Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Sami Aboudi