The Iraqi Cabinet agreed Tuesday to ask the United Nations to extend the authorization for U.S.-led forces in Iraq through the end of next year, but it will be the last time, officials said.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said last week that his government would ask the U.N. Security Council for the last time to renew the mandate that has given the United States and its partners sweeping powers in Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
The chief government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Cabinet had formally approved that decision.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker welcomed the move.
"This is a very positive process," he said at a news conference. "Iraq is increasingly able to stand on its own but will not have to stand alone."
The Cabinet move came a week after al-Maliki's administration and the United States signed a set of principles for future cooperation between the two countries as the U.S. military begins to draw down forces.
That set the stage for negotiations between the United States and Iraq on a new security formula, including the number of troops remaining here and the legal framework under which they will operate.
That agreement is scheduled to be reached by July 31, 2008, when the Iraqi government will present it to parliament for ratification, al-Maliki. That agreement would eventually replace the present U.N. mandate regulating the presence of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq.
Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to the prime minister, said the security situation in the country will require the presence of U.S. forces for the coming year. He said the request for the extension would include the same terms as last year, with the exception that it would be the final one.
The U.N. mandate regulates the U.S. presence in the country and gives it sweeping rights, including the right to detain suspects indefinitely without charge.
In other developments:
More than 25,000 Iraqis who fled to Syria have returned, the Iraqi Red Crescent said, offering an estimate of refugee returns radically lower than one given by an Iraqi government eager to highlight recent declines in violence. In a separate report Tuesday, a human rights group said Iraqis who sought refuge in Lebanon are being coerced into returning home.
The Red Crescent report, issued for the period beginning Sept. 15 and ending Nov. 30, said most of the estimated 25,000 to 28,000 refugees made the trip home in September and October, and the numbers tapered off during November. Officials in Iraq and Syria have said more than 46,000 refugees returned in October and claimed the flow has continued unabated.
Echoing concerns by U.S. and U.N. officials that many would find their homes occupied by others, the report said many of those who came from Syria - instead of returning to their own towns and neighborhoods - joined the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced within their homeland.
The report said the overwhelming majority of the refugees - at least 19,000 - returned to Baghdad, which has seen a dramatic turnaround in recent months, due largely to the influx of American troops to the capital, the freeze in activities from the feared Mahdi Army Shiite militia, and the U.S. push to enlist local Sunnis to help in the fight against al Qaeda.
The U.N. announced Tuesday $11.4 million in additional assistance for the most vulnerable refugees returning to Iraq.
The Red Crescent said many of the Iraqis returned to three neighborhoods largely reclaimed from al Qaeda in Iraq's control: Amariyah, Azamiyah and Dora. But, the organization warned, many of those who returned did so at least in part because their money ran out.
"The high cost of living and rented apartments and the limited employment opportunities contributed to lack of stability of Iraqi families and increased their passion to return to their country," said the report, which drew its findings from transportation companies, and government departments and ministries.
Eager to take credit for the decline in violence, Iraq's government is airing commercials directed at the exiles in Syria, providing armored convoys of buses and paying stipends to help with relocation costs.
Most refugees fled to neighboring Syria, but some also made it to other countries, including Jordan and to Lebanon. Iraqi refugees in Lebanon without valid visas are detained indefinitely unless they agree to return home, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday.
"Iraqi refugees in Lebanon live in constant fear of arrest," Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Refugees who are arrested face the prospect of rotting in jail indefinitely unless they agree to return to Iraq and face the dangers there."
But U.S. and U.N. officials warn Iraq lacks clear policies for the returnees, including frameworks to settle property disputes and fear violence will flare again if the Shiite-led government fails to capitalize on the security gains and make political progress.