By Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's parliament on Wednesday delayed a vote on a landmark pact setting a deadline for U.S. troops to leave, after agreeing to Sunni Arab demands to make it dependent on a referendum but rejecting other conditions.
The deal paves the way for U.S. troops to withdraw by the end of 2011, bringing closer to an end the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted former dictator Saddam Hussein, only to usher in years of sectarian bloodshed.
Once-dominant minority Sunni Arabs are concerned the U.S. departure may dilute their influence in the Shi'ite-led country. They have listed political reforms they want adopted before approving the pact.
The vote has been postponed to Thursday.
"From morning till now, we have been trying with great effort to reach a final agreement and we have achieved 99 percent, but there is still one issue left," Iraq's Shi'ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi said, but did not elaborate.
Parliament's speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani also put a positive gloss on things.
"The situation is ... heading toward an approval," he said.
The Iraqi National Dialogue, one of two Sunni Arab political blocs whose blessing for the pact is seen as key to achieving a broad consensus, said it had demanded reforms that would reduce powers to hunt and try members of Saddam's former Baath party.
They want an abolition of the tribunal that tried Saddam and of another law which they say is still being used to purge former Baathists, said Iyad al-Samarraie, head of parliament's biggest Sunni bloc, the Accordance Front.
Iraq's Shi'ite-led government and its Kurdish partners, who together hold most of Iraq's 275 parliamentary seats, had already agreed in principle to Sunni Arab demands for a referendum on the security deal in mid-2009.
The cabinet has approved the pact and signed with Washington.
KEEN TO SEE AMERICANS GO
On Baghdad's streets, where bodies once piled up overnight as death squads formed by majority Shi'ites battled al Qaeda-affiliated Sunni Arab fighters, some looked forward to the eventual departure of American soldiers.
"After five years of occupation, fighting, and instability, Iraq must be put on a steady base that will protect its sovereignty. The pact is the beginning of the end of the occupation," said Imad Hameed.
A simple majority vote in favor of the pact had always appeared likely in parliament. But Maliki's government needed a broad consensus to satisfy Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said such delays while debates go on should be expected in a young democracy.
"They're having ... discussions ... on how they can get this agreement across the goal line. We have faith that everyone's trying to do that ... We're hopeful that it will get done."
The deal, which replaces a U.N. mandate, would give Iraq authority over U.S. troops, make U.S. soldiers liable for some crimes committed when they are off-duty and rein in private security firms that have enjoyed a bonanza during the war.
The 150,000-odd American troops in Iraq will have to quit the towns by mid-2009, and leave the country by the end of 2011.
That will strengthen Maliki, who will continue to be able to call on U.S. forces to fight violence whilst scoring nationalist points for being the one who ushered the invaders out.
"This is an important step in restoring sovereignty to Iraq, but the road is still long, mostly because, regardless of Maliki's positions, governmental institutions and the security apparatus remain weak, and stability is fragile," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.
While lawmakers haggled, a blast in central Baghdad close to the fortified Green Zone compound killed two people.
(Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas, Tim Cocks, Aseel Kami Khalid al-Ansary and Wisam Mohammed; Writing by Michael Christie and Tim Cocks; Editing by Charles Dick)