Iraq's Cabinet approved a pact yesterday that will let U.S. troops stay in the country until 2011, setting a final date to end a military presence that began with the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Within hours of the Cabinet decision, a suicide car bomb exploded at a police checkpoint in Iraq's volatile Diyala province, killing at least 15 people, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

The pact, agreed after nearly a year of grueling negotiations, must still be approved by the Iraqi parliament, but Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said he expected that to happen by the end of the month. "Now we have a deal that we can defend," he told Reuters.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said all but one of the 28 Cabinet ministers present in yesterday’s meeting, in addition to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, voted in favor of the pact.
The Cabinet has 37 members and it was not immediately clear why some ministers stayed away. Several of them were believed to be traveling abroad. "This is an important and positive step," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Adam Ereli.

Al-Dabbagh said the agreement submitted to parliament yesterday, but did not say when the 275-member legislature will vote on the document.

"I'm optimistic that this agreement will be passed through the Council of Representatives (parliament)," he told Associated Press. The Cabinet vote was certain to anger neighboring Iran, which is bitterly opposed to the pact on grounds that it enshrines the U.S. military presence in Iraq, and threatens its security and regional influence.The Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni parties making up al-Maliki's government dominate parliament, and their lawmakers are expected to follow the example of their ministers. Followers of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr protested yesterday’s vote.

Meanwhile, the volatility of the security situation was highlighted by a bomb attack in Baghdad yesterday shortly before the cabinet meeting began which killed three people. And less than two hours after the cabinet ended it meeting, a suicide attack killed 15 people in Diyala.

*Hürriyet english news