Fate of Withdrawal Pact to Be Decided at the Polls

As Iraqis witness a spike in violence after a months-long relative lull, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has decided to put its security agreement with the U.S. to a public referendum, although the move appears to be only heightening a sense of uncertainty over the fate of the country.

Last year, Iraqi and U.S. negotiators included a provision in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) for a referendum on the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil, to be held six months after the deal went into effect. Although the referendum was supposed to be conducted in July, recently Iraq’s cabinet decided to hold it along with national parliamentary elections in January 2010.

The government allocated about $100 million for the polls last week and cited financial and time constraints as reasons for the delay.

According to SOFA’s road map, the U.S. should retreat from Iraqi cities by June 30 this year, and from the country in its entirety by January 2012. However, it is not yet fully clear whether the U.S. will embark on a full withdrawal or keep some forces in troubled areas like Mosul and Kirkuk in the north, as well as Baghdad.

Discussions of the referendum come against a backdrop of rising violence in recent weeks.

Experts believe that while al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups have been significantly weakened, they are still capable of carrying out lethal attacks aimed at dragging the country’s Shia majority into a new round of intense violence. That is in addition to high tensions at the fault lines between the country’s Kurds and Arabs in the north.

One critical question is if the Iraqi public votes against the SOFA, will Iraqi security forces be ready to take over security tasks from their U.S. counterparts in 18 months?

Deadly attacks across the country over the past few days underline the fragility of the situation.

On Monday, bombings and shootings killed at least 33 people in Shi’ite neighborhoods of Baghdad and surrounding areas, after a truck bomb last weekend killed some 75 people in Kirkuk province in northern Iraq.

The attack Saturday against a Shia target in Kirkuk took place in a part of the country that is at the center of disputes between Iraqi Kurds and Arab ethnicities. It was meant to touch on sectarian as well as ethnic nerves.

To many, the attack served as a grim reminder that if Iraqi security forces are not capable of securing the country in spite of the U.S. military’s support, they will be even less likely to accomplish it without that support.

Despite public statements by Iraqi politicians bragging about the new capabilities of their forces to meet security challenges inside the country, a Washington Post report last month depicted an ill-managed army with incompetent and corrupt commanders.

To make matters even worse, low oil prices over the past several months have adversely affected plans to better arm, equip, and expand Iraq’s armed forces. The shrinking budget has meant the country has not been able to rebuild its navy and air forces.

In a recent interview with France’s Le Monde newspaper, Maliki acknowledged that Iraq’s army still faces serious logistical problems, relying on U.S. military aircraft for troop movements.

That has some experts convinced that despite his rhetoric supporting the referendum, Maliki is all too cognizant of the dangers of a premature withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"I think PM Maliki and some members of his circle were not very enthusiastic about the referendum and were demanded by some other parties like Sadrists [to put the SOFA up for a vote]," Matthew Duss of the Center for American Progress told IPS.

Followers of the young Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr were staunch opponents of the security pact during the debate in the Iraqi parliament last year, decrying it as a legitimization of the U.S. occupation.

Iraq’s upcoming parliamentary election scheduled for next January is a key factor behind the decision by the Iraqi government.

Maliki would have found it damaging to his nationalistic credentials to not agree to the referendum given that Iraqi voters showed during the last provincial elections that they can oust key parties. During those elections held earlier this year, the largest Shia party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, failed to hold onto power in several key provinces, including Baghdad.

But there are some who believe even if a referendum is held, Iraqi leaders will convince their people not to reject the agreement given that time is running out for the U.S. military in Iraq regardless.

"The referendum means little in terms of hard value, because now we have an american administration that is keen to pull out its troops from Iraq," said Laith Kubba, a former spokesman for the Iraqi government.

"Iraqi politicians will align themselves with their interests and will not rock the boat very hard, since it is not in their interests," Kubba said.

Whether Iraqi leaders venture to publicly sell the deal to their constituencies during an election season and what verdict the public will pass on U.S. military’s presence remains to be seen. In their attempt to balance nationalism with realism and political survival, Iraqi politicians have a hard struggle ahead of them.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Mohammed A. Salih

Mohammed A. Salih writes for Inter Press Service.