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Tue 23 Dec 2008 02:26 PM

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Iraq political row threatens British troop vote

Deal needed by Dec. 31 to permit non-US foreign troops to remain in Iraq next year.

Political squabbling in Iraq's parliament threatened again on Tuesday to hold up a measure needed by Dec. 31 to permit troops from Britain, Australia and a handful of other countries to remain in Iraq next year.

Lawmakers were expected to meet in a special session in the afternoon to discuss the proposal on the foreign troops, and also the fate of parliamentary speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who some lawmakers are demanding be ousted, said Fouad Masoum, a leading Kurdish politician.

But the debate on foreign troops could be overtaken for a second day by the storm surrounding Mashhadani, whose crude language and insults during a session last week infuriated some Kurdish and Shi'ite lawmakers.

The row over Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab physician who in 2006 emerged from nowhere to head the young Iraqi parliament, has frozen progress on a measure authorising the Iraqi government to cement an agreement governing the presence of troops from Britain, Australia, El Salvador, Romania and Estonia and NATO.

Those forces are awaiting finalisation of the new arrangement legalising their presence in Iraq after a UN mandate expires on Dec. 31.

On Saturday, parliament rejected a draft law that would have allowed them to conduct combat operations through May next year and to remain in Iraq through July.

Lawmakers argued that, rather than legislation, a treaty or agreement was needed, similar in format to a US-Iraqi deal that allows the 140,000 troops in Iraq to remain through 2011.

On Monday, a vote on such a measure was abandoned amid calls for Mashhadani's ousting and the speaker's retaliatory decision to suspend regular sessions until Jan. 7.

Politicians have said they may approve some kind of interim measure that would permit the foreign forces to stay until a proper treaty or agreement can be concluded.

Britain, the United States' main ally in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, has only about 4,100 troops left in Iraq, mostly around the southern oil port city of Basra.

Basra, like most of Iraq, has become a much safer place in the past year as violent attacks drop sharply.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence in London said on Monday that Britain believed "lawmakers are quite keen not to let this fall victim to other issues going on in parliament, which seems to be the case".