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Iraq Rejects Draft Law Letting Non-US Troops Stay

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BAGHDAD — Iraq's parliament rejected for the second time Saturday a draft law allowing foreign troops from countries other than the United States to remain after the end of the year, lawmakers said.

The law drafted by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would allow all foreign troops other than Americans to stay in Iraq until the end of July 2009. It was rejected earlier in the week and is expected to approved in another vote after Christmas.

Those opposed to the draft law were primarily lawmakers loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

A separate agreement approved recently by the Iraqi government and parliament allows the U.S. to retain troops in the country until the end of 2011. The accord, which takes effect on January 1, gives Iraq strict oversight over the nearly 150,000 American troops now in the country.

"Voting was carried out in parliament on the draft law and it was rejected and turned back to the government," Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said.

Britain will withdraw its 4,000 troops by the end of May. After the Dec. 31 expiration of the U.N. mandate authorizing military operations in Iraq, the only coalition troops to remain will be the U.S., Britain, Australia, El Salvador, Estonia and Romania.

Australia has the largest force among the last four countries with 1,000 troops, followed by Romania with 501, El Salvador with 200 and Estonia with 40.

In other developments, the U.S. military announced Saturday it had arrested an Iraqi man "who is allegedly a commander of Iranian special operations in Iraq."

He was arrested Friday just north of Baghdad and the military said he was "also believed to be involved in facilitating the training of Iraqi militants" at camps run by the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Al-Maliki also denied reports that there were any Iraqis in the security forces or military conspiring to launch a coup against the government. His statement came after the arrest of nearly two dozen Iraqi officials who allegedly were conspiring to revive Saddam Hussein's banned Baath party.

"Whoever talks about a coup in this country is imagining things. There are no coups in Iraq and there is no one who think about making a coup," al-Maliki said a a sports ceremony. He said that Iraq was now a democracy and there was "absolutely no place for thinking of coups while there is freedom and the people have the ability to express themselves through the ballot."

His comments came amid conflicting reports Saturday over the release of the arrested officials and whether their detentions were related to accusations they were conspiring to revive the Baath party.

National Security Minister Sherwan al-Waili told The Associated Press that 19 men were still being held. The arrest order had originally included 23 officials, but four were not detained.

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani insisted for a second day, however, that the men including some from his ministry had been released. The director of al-Bolani's office, Ahmed Jaleel, reiterated Saturday that news of the release "is right."

And security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were close to the investigation, said none of the men had been released.

It was unclear why the two ministers, both Shiites, were offering contradictory accounts about whether the men were still in detention.

Late Friday, al-Bolani said the investigating judge ordered the officials released "because they are innocent" of allegations they were trying to restore the Baath party, whose exiled leaders staunchly oppose the current government.

But Al-Waili said the arrests and ensuing investigation were related to violations that included forgery and had "no relation with any political motivations," clouding the explanation for the arrests.

He added that "the case and charges raised have no relation with a coup as it was said but is something related to violations inside the Interior Ministry."

Some Iraqi politicians had speculated the arrests were part of campaign to bolster al-Maliki's power before two key elections next year _ at the expense of Sunnis and secular figures.

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Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.