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Iraqi Cleric Defers on US Pact

Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric says any agreement on U.S. troops in Iraq must restore the nation's full sovereignty.

But Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a statement Tuesday indicating he would not get deeply involved in the issue and leave passage of the deal to lawmakers.

The influential cleric spoke as parliament debated an agreement signed Monday between the U.S. and Iraq that would see all American troops out in three years.

If approved, the agreement would replace a U.N. mandate governing the U.S. presence.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say the agreement is a firm commitment, but add the pact could be renegotiated.

In Iran, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani Tuesday criticized the deal, saying Washington wants to strengthen U.S. hegemony in Iraq.

On Monday, the head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi, said he hopes the deal will benefit Islam and the sovereignty of Iraq.

The agreement comes six weeks before the current U.N. mandate is set to expire. It also follows the transfer to Iraq of security responsibilities in many of its provinces as violence declined sharply over the past year.

The deal would give Iraq authority over U.S. military operations for the first time, requiring the U.S. military to ask permission to search homes, and banning American use of Iraqi territory to launch attacks on third countries.

It also would give Iraq some judicial oversight of serious crimes committed by U.S. soldiers while off-base and off-duty.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.