Sunni Arab lawmakers appeared Wednesday to have won their demand for a referendum that would let the public vote on a pact allowing U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for three more years.
The referendum was part of a package of legislation that Sunni legislators demanded be tied to the pact, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, which sets Dec. 31, 2011, as the date by which all American forces must leave Iraq.
The parliament had planned to vote on the accord Wednesday but delayed it by at least a day as the ruling Shiite Muslim and Kurdish coalition struggled to win support from Sunni Arab parties.
The referendum issue appeared to have been resolved to the Sunnis’ satisfaction after dogged last-minute negotiations, Iraqi lawmakers from across the political spectrum said Wednesday.
“Regarding the referendum, it is included in the legislation,” said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a lawmaker with the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite bloc. Kurdish lawmaker Ala Noori Talabani said the powerful Kurdish alliance also had come to support the Sunnis’ demand for the public vote.
But new wrinkles were added as some Sunni legislators held out for additional concessions. They included elimination of a special tribunal that prosecutes members of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led government for crimes committed on the regime’s behalf, and the scrapping of a law limiting opportunities for onetime top members of Hussein’s Baath Party.
“We will not enter the session and vote unless these two demands are agreed upon,” said Mohammed Tamim of the National Dialogue Front, a mainly Sunni slate with 11 seats.
Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers, who represent groups targeted by Hussein, balked at these demands.
“Canceling them is difficult because we are among those who suffered from the old regime,” Talabani said.
Even without Sunni support, the agreement probably could pass the 275-seat parliament. However, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, has made it clear that he wants broad-based support for the pact. That has meant negotiating long-festering demands put forward by the Sunnis, whose blocs hold 71 seats.
As a result, what began as a debate over the future of U.S. forces here has evolved into a political showdown reflective of the resentment, sectarian distrust and grudges among Iraqi lawmakers. The main Sunni bloc, Tawafiq, led the way in using the security agreement as a bargaining chip for winning its demand for the referendum.
Smaller factions followed suit. By Wednesday, the list of demands had broadened to include various constitutional changes and an amnesty for the 16,000 mainly Sunni prisoners held by U.S. forces.
The referendum would be held in July 2009. If voters rejected the pact, Iraq’s government would have to cancel it or demand changes to it. Terms of the agreement allow either the Iraqis or Americans to give one year’s notice of cancellation; so if Iraq scrapped the pact, U.S. forces would have to leave the country by July 2010 -- a year and a half ahead of schedule.
Sunnis could be banking on widespread voter support for the agreement, since many of them privately fear that an early departure of U.S. forces would leave them vulnerable to the Shiite-led government and security forces. Publicly, though, they must show resistance to the pact to bolster their image as nationalists.
The fiercest opposition to the agreement came from the 30 lawmakers loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, a vocal critic of the U.S. presence. They want American forces to leave Iraq immediately and accused other parties of trading Iraq’s sovereignty for political gain.
“Why are they connecting political reforms with signing the pact?” said lawmaker Ahmed Massoudi, who last week was involved in a near-brawl in the parliament when he tried to prevent a reading of the agreement to lawmakers.
Massoudi, loyal to Sadr, said the accord is too vague on the mechanism for pulling out U.S. troops: “How many soldiers will leave within a month? How many brigades?”