Iraq’s Cabinet on Sunday overwhelmingly accepted a plan to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq by the end of 2011 and sent it on to parliament for approval, where it faces a fight from lawmakers who consider it a sellout to the Americans.
The Status of Forces Agreement was expected to be presented to the 275-seat national legislature today for the start of what is likely to be contentious debate. Lawmakers are under pressure to vote on it by Nov. 25, when they plan to set out on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The agreement is to replace the United Nations mandate expiring Dec. 31 that gives U.S. forces the legal basis for being in Iraq.
Though the Cabinet’s approval marked a victory of sorts for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who wrung several concessions from the United States during months of negotiations, it also puts him on a collision course with some Shiite and Sunni Muslim lawmakers who strongly oppose the deal. Among them are followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who has threatened to call his Mahdi Army militia back to war against the United States to derail the pact; and Sunni parliamentarians who said the pact should be voted on in a national referendum.
The agreement calls for American forces to pull out of Iraqi cities by the end of June and fully withdraw from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
After lengthy negotiations, the U.S. also agreed to promise not to raid or attack neighboring countries from Iraq; not to search Iraqi homes or make arrests without Iraqi approval; and to drop demands for total immunity for U.S. forces accused of wrongdoing in the country.
Despite the compromises, Sadr rejects the pact because he wants U.S. forces to leave Iraq when the U.N. mandate ends. Leaders of Iraq’s minority Sunni population say the plan is too important not to be voted on by the public.
The country’s most influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, indicated over the weekend that he would not oppose the latest draft. Sistani’s word carries immense weight with Iraq’s Shiite majority and should help fellow Shiite Maliki navigate the choppy waters that might result from Sadr’s opposition and from neighboring Iran, said Vali Nasr, an expert on Middle East politics at Tufts University.
“I think Maliki had to get the deal that would satisfy Sistani,” Nasr said. “From the outset, he is the one who mattered and is the only one who can stand up to Iran and Sadr’s opposition.”
Iran, like Sadr, had said U.S. forces should leave Iraq when the U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
“This will be an adventure,” said Omar Abdul-Sattar, a Sunni legislator, summing up his prediction for the parliament debate.
In addition to political resistance, Abdul-Sattar said time constraints on lawmakers would make reaching consensus difficult.
The Cabinet approval came after a two-hour meeting presided over by Maliki, who urged passage after concluding he had won all he could from Washington.
“They decided it’s the best we could get,” Education Minister Khudair Khuzai said of the deal, which was approved by all but one of the 28 Cabinet ministers present.
Khuzai, a Shiite, said he would have preferred a quick exit of foreign troops from Iraqi soil but was satisfied with the withdrawal timeline that was approved.
“If I was not convinced, I would not have voted for it,” he said.
Under the plan, the touchy subject of immunity would be entrusted to a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee that would decide if an American service member should be subject to Iraqi prosecution for alleged crimes committed against Iraqis.
The lone opponent in the Cabinet vote was Nawal Majid Hameed, minister of state for women’s affairs. She is a member of the main Sunni bloc, Tawafiq, which has said the public, not politicians, should decide on the agreement in a referendum. Hameed said amendments sought by Tawafiq, including the release of about 16,000 Iraqis in U.S. custody, were ignored and that her bloc stood by its demand for a referendum.
In addition to not wanting to taint their Arab nationalist reputation by signing off on a deal with the Americans, some Sunnis also no doubt fear being swallowed by the Shiite majority after the withdrawal of U.S. forces, which have provided an added layer of security since ousting the Sunni-run government of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Ahmed Massoudi, a spokesman for lawmakers loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Sadr, called the vote “highly regrettable” and said Cabinet members “gave away Iraq on a gold platter to the occupier.”
The Sunni and Sadr blocs don’t control enough seats in parliament to torpedo the pact, but if it passes, it still must be ratified by the three-member presidency council.
The council includes Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi, who has led calls for the referendum and could veto any agreement.
Aware of the obstacles ahead, the White House was cautious in its reaction. “While the process is not yet complete, we remain hopeful and confident we’ll soon have an agreement that serves both the people of Iraq and the United States well,” spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
If Iraq’s parliament rejected the deal or failed to pass it before the end of the year, it would not be the first time crucial legislation has fallen victim to the country’s polarized politics. A bill to manage Iraq’s lucrative oil industry was approved by the Cabinet more than a year ago but never passed parliament.
After the Cabinet vote Sunday, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh sought to deflect Iraqi concerns that the pact left open the door for U.S. troops to extend their stay here. He called the withdrawal deadlines of June 2009 and Dec. 31, 2011, “final and decided.”
When the talks began, the United States had pressed for wording that would have omitted deadlines for troop withdrawals in favor of a vague “time horizon” for withdrawal dependent on conditions in Iraq.
Even with the deadlines, Dabbagh said Iraq would have the right to cancel the agreement if it decided its forces were ready to assume full control of the country’s security.