Iraqi parliament set to endorse U.S. pact despite opposition.hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:none; color:#000000;}.hurriyet2008-detailbox-newslink:hover { font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; font-size:13px; font-weight:bold; text-decoration:underline; color:#990000;}Iraqi MPs are expected Wednesday to endorse a wide-ranging accord that will allow U.S. troops to remain another three years, despite reservations by Sunnis and fierce opposition by Shiite hardliners.

The 275-member assembly is due to vote by a show of hands on the wide-ranging accord, which would require U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of June and from the rest of the country by the end of 2011.

The measure enjoys the support of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Kurdish alliance, and a number of independent MPs -- enough for it to pass with slightly more than the requisite simple majority of 138 votes.

But deputy parliamentary speaker Khaled al-Attiya said the government and the UIA were making a last-minute push to assemble a broader coalition.

"We do not want to pass this agreement with a difference of two or three or four votes," Attiya told AFP on the eve of the vote. "For this reason there are continuing efforts to achieve a vast majority."

On Wednesday, Attiya said the assembly would convene at 3:00 pm (1200 GMT) instead of 11:00 am as originally planned, without providing further details.

But a spokesman for the National Concord Front -- the main Sunni bloc with 39 votes -- said lawmakers were trying to hash out an agreement to meet the blocs demand for political reforms related to national reconciliation.

"The reason for the delay is that the presidential committee of parliament and the presidential council have reached an agreement that includes a set of political reforms," Salim Abdullah told AFP.

"Now there is a meeting to prepare a clear framework of the decision with the agreement of the political blocs."

The agreement -- the product of nearly a year of hard-nosed negotiations -- was approved by Iraq’s cabinet over a week ago with support from the major blocs representing the country’s Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish communities.

Iraq won a number of concessions in the deal, including a hard timeline for withdrawal, the right to search U.S. military cargo and the right to try U.S. soldiers for crimes committed while they are off their bases and off-duty.

The agreement also requires that U.S. troops obtain Iraqi permission for all military operations, and that they hand over the files of all detainees in U.S. custody to the Iraqi authorities, who will decide their fate.

The pact also forbids U.S. troops from using Iraq as a launch-pad or transit point for attacking another country, which may reassure Syria and Iran.

But the accord has drawn fire from certain quarters, including followers of the hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who reject any agreement with the United States and who protested at the accord in Baghdad on Friday.

Attiya, who is close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said the government hoped to win over those who merely have "reservations" about the pact.

"(Some political blocs) have officially announced that they have reservations, but the reservations do not touch on the agreement. They are related to other things," Attiya said.

He added that the UIA and the government were willing to discuss such demands, but that the pact had to be approved well before the UN mandate currently governing the troops expires on December 31.

If approved, the deal gives Iraq formal authority over the U.S. presence for the first time, replacing a U.N. security council mandate. U.S. troops must quit Iraqi towns and villages by the middle of next year, then leave Iraq within three years.

That will greatly strengthen the hand of Maliki and his Shi'ite-led government, which will continue to enjoy the benefits of U.S. military backing whilst scoring nationalist points for being the ones who ushered it out.

"It would take U.S.-Iraqi relations exactly in the direction Maliki wants: a gradual drawdown that would focus on the training of Iraqi security forces and...would be slow enough to give him a maximum of possibility for staying in power," said Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert and editor of the website.

Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, signalled last week he would leave it to lawmakers to decide the fate of the pact, but he said it needed wide backing from across Iraq's sectarian and political divides.

Large Shi'ite and Kurdish parties that support Maliki may have enough votes to pass it but to get a broad consensus they need to win over Sunni Arabs and smaller parties worried about the power it bestows on Maliki's Islamist Shi'ite alliance.

Even if the pact is approved, Iraq's path to peace is not assured.

Violence has fallen to lows not seen since after the invasion but militants still carry out devastating attacks. Nineteen people died in bomb attacks across Baghdad on Monday.

"Governmental institutions and the security apparatus remain weak and stability is fragile," Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.

"For the U.S., the hope is to get out of Iraq and leave behind a regime that can survive and hold up against internal and external enemies ... Iraq is still far from this."