In a vote heralded by supporters as a momentous step toward restoring Iraqi sovereignty, lawmakers here passed a crucial bill Thursday, setting out a three-year timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi soil.
The bill passed after months of backroom negotiations with the Americans, political arm-twisting by Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and warnings from a small but vocal bloc of hard-line Shiite opponents that the law could be manipulated to keep American soldiers in Iraq indefinitely.
And the whole process could still be derailed in July when, in a concession to Sunni Arab parties, a national referendum is to be held to ratify the accord.
But the bill’s passage through a fractious parliament more accustomed to paralysis marks a moment when Iraqi politics appeared to work, and where the horizon of the U.S. military role in Iraq came into view.
“We have crossed an important milestone,” Maliki said in a televised address Thursday in which he pledged to ensure that Iraq’s security forces are brought up to speed quickly to take over from departing American forces. “It represents the first step in our march to restoring sovereignty.”
The pact, which is expected to be formally ratified by Iraq’s three-person Presidency Council, requires U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities, towns and villages by June 30 as the first step toward a total withdrawal by the end of 2011. It also limits U.S. troops’ ability to conduct missions, raids or arrests without Iraqi authority and opens the door to Iraqi courts handling some criminal cases involving American troops.
Of the 198 lawmakers present, 149 raised their hands in favor of the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA. Seventy-seven were absent.
Maliki could probably have won approval without Sunni support, but he sought a wider consensus to burnish the pact’s legitimacy. The vote, held above the din of Shiite detractors shouting “No!” and bashing books and binders on desks, followed intense negotiations among the nation’s Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.
Maliki will be held to promises of political reform made to the Sunnis in exchange for their yes votes. Most Sunnis showed up and voted in favor of the bill.
Kurds could use the promises to press their own demands for autonomy from a central government they see as too strong. And hard-liners loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr -- who opposed the pact, fearing it will allow for an open-ended American presence -- have warned of renewed violence against U.S. forces by Shiite militiamen.
To win backing from the main Sunni Arab blocs in parliament, Maliki’s ruling Shiites and their Kurdish allies approved a resolution agreeing to consider a wish list rooted in Sunni complaints of political sidelining and persecution. The demands vary from amnesty for detainees -- most of them Sunnis -- held by the U.S. military to the incorporation of the mainly Sunni paramilitary group known as the Sons of Iraq into government security forces or other jobs.
Rashid Azzawi, a member of the main Sunni bloc, Tawafiq, acknowledged that there was no guarantee the issues would be resolved. The resolution passed by the 275-member parliament does not include a timetable or methods for dealing with the complaints. But Azzawi said it “will bind the sides morally” to take action beyond mere words.
The Sunnis could face problems of their own down the line. If voters reject the pact in the promised July referendum, Iraq’s government would have to cancel the accord or seek changes to it, possibly leading to a pullout of U.S. forces earlier than the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline. That would leave Sunnis without the extra protection the United States offers against the Shiite-led government and security forces, where grudges left over from Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime run deep.
Analysts said Sunni lawmakers demanded the referendum to present themselves as fierce nationalists unwilling to strike deals with foreign forces.
“Tawafiq’s attitude was linked to the upcoming provincial elections,” said Toby Dodge of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Dodge was referring to Jan. 31 balloting for provincial councils, where Sunnis currently hold few seats. “They were playing to the audience.”
In reality, the Sunnis probably are banking on a public endorsement of the SOFA to keep Americans in Iraq as long as possible, Dodge said.
They also could use the referendum as a bargaining chip against Maliki, said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. Threatening to lobby for a no vote or for amendments could force the prime minister to deal with Sunni concerns, he said.
“They have real fears about the Maliki government’s intentions in the absence of U.S. protection. The referendum may be the only lever they have to shape the security agreement in a way that would extend U.S. protection, or at least force the Maliki government to reassure them by conceding to some of their demands,” he said.
This week, Sadrist opponents of the pact had stalled discussions on the SOFA and engaged in a near-brawl with other lawmakers as they sought to prevent parliament from moving ahead with the vote.
On Thursday, their chants and desk pounding nearly drowned out the reading of the SOFA bill and accompanying legislation. After the vote, most of the bloc’s 30 members convened a news conference wearing black sashes of mourning and vowed to keep up political resistance.
Among other things, they complain that the SOFA contains provisions that would allow either side to extend the American troop presence, which dates from the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003.
“It is not a pact of withdrawing the troops, but it is a pact of organizing the presence of the foreign troops in Iraq,” said lawmaker Ahmed Massoudi, an ally of Sadr.
The pact allows for amendments if both sides agree to them. U.S. officials have indicated that they interpret that as permitting an extension, if security conditions in Iraq are deemed too shaky to leave Iraqi forces in charge.
“There is a provision for extension, by agreement of both sides,” one U.S. official said.
President Bush said in a statement posted by the White House that the vote “affirms the growth” of democracy in Iraq, now in its sixth year of violent conflict.
U.S. and Iraqi negotiators took nine months to reach agreement on the SOFA, and it came after the Bush administration made substantial concessions. They included agreeing to Iraqi dates for the withdrawal of U.S. forces after Washington initially demanded a “time horizon” that set no specific targets.
Whether those concessions are enough to win popular support won’t be known until the referendum. Iraqis following the negotiations were as split as the parliament on the topic.
“This is a bad day and a bad omen,” said Qassim Hussein, echoing Sadrist concerns that the Americans would find ways to dodge the pact’s withdrawal deadlines.
Abu Mohammed disagreed.
“The pact is good because the U.S. forces will pull out and prisoners will be released,” he said while watching the debate on a TV set in a barbershop.
“I think everything is solved.”
Staff writer Usama Redha in Baghdad and special correspondent Asso Ahmed in Sulaymaniya, Iraq, contributed to this report.