President Bush said Wednesday he is confident he can work out a new security pact with the Iraqis before year's end. But time is running out, and the two sides may be forced to ask for an extension of the current U.N. agreement allowing the U.S. military to operate in Iraq.

Doing so would shift crucial decisions about U.S. military power in Iraq to the next U.S. president.

Political opposition to the proposed deal in Iraq has increased discussion in Washington and Baghdad about a U.N. extension. The Iraqi Cabinet this week authorized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reopen talks on the Status of Forces Agreement, and he has sent proposed changes to Washington.

The current U.N. mandate gives legal authority for U.S. forces to operate through Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric expressed concern Wednesday that Iraqi sovereignty be protected in the pact. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wields vast influence among the Shiite majority, and his explicit opposition could scuttle the deal.

PAKISTAN FORMALLY PROTESTS AIRSTRIKES

Pakistan's government summoned U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson on Wednesday to urge an immediate halt to missile strikes on suspected militant hide-outs near the Afghan border. The attacks have killed at least two senior Al-Qaida commanders in Pakistan, putting some pressure on extremist groups accused of planning attacks in Afghanistan -- and perhaps terror strikes in the West.

However, the increasing frequency of the strikes has strained America's seven-year alliance with Pakistan, where rising violence is exacerbating economic problems that threaten the nuclear-armed Islamic republic's stability.

In Washington, the State Department confirmed that Patterson had been summoned to the foreign ministry, but refused to discuss details of the meeting.

SYRIA THREATENS BORDER COOPERATION

Syria warned Wednesday it may cut off security cooperation along the Iraqi border if there are more U.S. raids on Syrian territory, and the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, the capital, announced it would close today because of a mass rally called to protest a weekend commando attack.

Thousands were expected to participate in the government-sanctioned protest. Though authorities usually keep Syria under tight control and Americans have generally been welcomed, violence against U.S. and European interests at protests has erupted in the past.

The embassy also said an American school in the Syrian capital would temporarily shut its doors Thursday and warned U.S. citizens in Syria to be vigilant. Damascus already ordered the closure of the school and the cultural center.

SEOUL SETS PULLOUT DATE FOR TROOPS

South Korea says it will bring home all military personnel remaining in Iraq by Dec. 20.

Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae told reporters Wednesday in Seoul that South Korea is making the move because it believes Iraq's security has become "considerably stable." The withdrawal will affect 520 army engineers and medics in Iraq and 130 other support personnel in Kuwait.

South Korea has stationed troops in Iraq for a reconstruction mission since 2003 at the request of the United States. Troops levels once reached 3,600, but Seoul has gradually pulled out soldiers amid opposition to the deployment at home.

NEWS SERVICES