Iraq's Parliament Postpones Vote on Security Pact With U.S.

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 27, 2008

BAGHDAD, Nov. 26 -- Iraqi lawmakers deferred until Thursday a scheduled vote on a security agreement that would extend the U.S. military presence in Iraq until the end of 2011 but agreed to put the pact to a national referendum in July. If voters rejected the agreement, U.S. forces would have to leave the country by the middle of 2010, according to Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers.

The referendum was a last-minute concession to Iraq's largest Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has long demanded a nationwide vote on the issue. "If there is no referendum, we will not vote yes to the agreement," said Omar Abdul Sattar, an Islamic Party lawmaker, speaking before parliament postponed its vote on the status-of-forces agreement.

Haider al-Abadi, an influential member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party, said lawmakers affiliated with the ruling coalition had "given guarantees to conduct the referendum and will comply with the result, whatever that may be."

The Sunni bloc's 44 votes in the 275-seat parliament are insufficient to defeat the security agreement; Shiite and Kurdish parties already claim the simple majority of 138 votes required to approve it. But in accommodating the Sunnis, the ruling coalition is bowing to the wishes of the country's preeminent Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has said any deal should have the support of all of Iraq's parties in order to be legitimate.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declined to comment on the delay but said Maliki and parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani "are committed to having a vote and having a vote very soon." Rice dismissed concerns about a separate referendum next year -- after the Bush administration has left office -- saying, "My understanding is that nothing here delays the entry into force of the agreement, and that's really the important point."

Asked about Iraqi media reports of "secret language" in the text and differing English and Arabic versions, Rice said at a State Department briefing that "we believe these are conforming texts. I don't speak Arabic," she said, "but one of the things that we do with the Iraqis is that we go line by line to conform the text and to make sure that there is common understanding of what is meant here. And of course . . . there isn't any secret language."

Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates briefed the House and Senate foreign relations committees on the final text last week; administration officials said the document would be publicly released at that time. But the White House subsequently decided to delay the release until after the Iraqi legislative vote, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.

A spokeswoman for President-elect Barack Obama declined to comment on Wednesday's events in Baghdad. Last week, the spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, said Obama "believes it is critical that a status-of-forces agreement that ensures sufficient protections for our men and women in uniform is reached before the end of the year. We look forward to reviewing the final text."

Iraq's Sunnis are concerned that the security agreement will allow the Shiite-led government to tighten its grip on Iraq. The Sunnis have made their support for the pact contingent on separate political changes that they say will bring about greater power-sharing among Iraq's sects. They also seek the release of thousands of Sunni detainees in U.S.-run centers and greater Sunni representation in Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces.

On Wednesday, lawmakers said that two key Sunni demands -- the abolition of a special criminal court that tries former members of Saddam Hussein's government and the lifting of all restrictions on the reappointment of former members of his Baath Party to government jobs -- were still being negotiated. The continuing talks were the key reasons for the postponement of the vote, originally scheduled for Wednesday, said Ali Adeeb, a Dawa lawmaker.

The pact requires that U.S. troops pull out of cities and towns by this summer and withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. Iraq's security forces still depend heavily on the U.S. military for support. Maliki and other government officials have said that any premature withdrawal of American troops could embolden the Sunni insurgency and Shiite militias, a development that could destabilize Iraq and the wider region.

Maliki, who has won key demands from the Americans over eight months of talks, is positioned to become the leader who will effectively end the U.S. military presence, bolstering his authority. If the agreement doesn't pass, he will be forced to seek an extension of the U.N. mandate that authorizes American forces to operate in Iraq, which expires Dec. 31.

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