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Iraqi referendum proposed

Published: 4:44AM Sunday December 07, 2008

A referendum next year on a newly minted US-Iraqi security pact will give Iraqis the chance to "correct and reform" an agreement that has stirred controversy, a senior official in Baghdad said on Saturday.

"If we find things are going differently than our expectations, then we can correct (the pact) through the referendum, which is a way to correct or reform it," Tareq al-Hashemi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, told reporters.

Iraq's government gave final approval this week to the bilateral security deal, which governs the US troop presence in Iraq from January 1, 2009 and will require US troops to withdraw by the end of 2011.

The deal is a politically charged issue in Iraq, where many resent the government's endorsement of a prolonged US presence more than five years after the US-led invasion.

Others welcome a longer stay for US troops, who now number around 146,000, fearing that tensions among Iraqi political, religious and ethnic camps may explode after a US exit.

After bitter debate, the deal passed parliament last month, but some politicians agreed to support the pact only after a referendum on the deal was scheduled for next summer.

How exactly the referendum will work is an open question, but Hashemi said its result will be decisive.

"If the Iraqi people reject the pact in the referendum ... the government of Iraq will be committed, according to the law, to the result of the referendum and will convey this will to the American administration. The pact will be annulled," he said.

The deal can be terminated if either signatory gives the other side a year's notice.

Some influential figures - including Ali al-Sistani, the top Shi'ite cleric in Iraq - have expressed reservations about the deal.

Many Iraqis are sceptical that the United States will keep to the terms of the deal, which requires it to withdraw from cities and towns by mid-2009 and to defer to Iraqi authorities in planning military operations.

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