By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 28, 2008
BAGHDAD, Nov. 27 -- The Iraqi parliament on Thursday approved a security pact that requires the U.S. military to end its presence in Iraq in 2011, eight years after a U.S.-led invasion brought about the fall of Saddam Hussein.
"It's a historic day for the great Iraqi people," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a nationally televised address. "It represents the first step on the road to regain national sovereignty."
Just over half of the parliament members voted to approve the agreement, which will give the United States a legal basis to maintain its forces in Iraq but requires American commanders to work more closely with Iraqi authorities than they have in the past. A United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S. presence expires Dec. 31.
The pact also restricts the powers of the U.S. military to search homes, detain Iraqi citizens and conduct military operations, and gives Iraqi officials oversight over American forces. U.S. troops could be prosecuted under Iraqi laws for serious crimes committed when off duty and off their bases, although the United States retains the power to determine whether a service member was off duty. Still, the changes represent a dramatic shift for a nation where most citizens felt humiliation at having American troops on their soil.
The agreement is a significant victory for Maliki, who can take credit for ushering in the end of the U.S. intervention in Iraq. That feat could bolster his influence and popularity ahead of provincial and national elections scheduled for next year.
Despite heated last-minute negotiations for political concessions, Iraq's feuding sects came together to vote in a rare show of unity. Passage required a simple majority of 138 votes in the 275-seat parliament; on Thursday, 149 members endorsed the security agreement, 35 opposed it and 14 abstained, lawmakers said. Seventy-seven members were not present for the vote.
It remained unclear whether the number of votes satisfied the wishes of the country's preeminent Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who had said any deal should have the support of all of Iraq's parties in order to be legitimate.
The approval of the security pact sent a message to Iraq's powerful neighbors, including Iran and Syria, who lobbied hard against it. "The message to Iran is that the Iraqi people decided to take their decision on their own. Iraq has its own sovereignty now. Iraq will not be controlled by any neighboring country," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc, which has railed against Iranian influence in Iraq.
While it sets a clear deadline for an American withdrawal, the pact also allows the Iraqi government to negotiate with the United States to extend the presence of U.S. troops if conditions on the ground are not stable. The pact also allows certain foreign security contractors to be tried under Iraqi law for crimes.
The agreement now has to be approved by Iraq's Presidency Council -- composed of President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, and his deputies, one Shiite and one Sunni.
The vote clears away a vexing hurdle for the Bush administration, which had increasingly feared that approval of the agreement might slip out of its reach before President-elect Barack Obama takes office in January.
President Bush said in a statement issued in Washington that the vote "affirms the growth of Iraq's democracy and increasing ability to secure itself."
"Two years ago, this day seemed unlikely -- but the success of the surge and the courage of the Iraqi people set the conditions for these two agreements to be negotiated and approved by the Iraqi parliament," Bush said. The agreements, he said, "serve as a testament to the Iraqi, Coalition, and American men and women, both military and civilian, who paved the way for this day." Bush said he was looking forward to "swift approval" by the presidency council.
The pact includes two documents: a status-of-forces agreement governing the rules under which U.S. troops will operate; and a wide-ranging strategic framework agreement that governs cooperation in politics, economics, culture and other fields.
The lawmakers also approved a nonbinding resolution to address long-standing Sunni grievances and those of other minorities, and voted in favor of holding a national referendum on the security agreement, scheduled for July.
If Iraq's voters were to reject the agreement, the Iraqi government would be required to give notice for U.S. troops to pull out in July 2010, 18 months ahead of the deadline outlined in the pact. But it remains to be seen whether the referendum will take place: Several mandated referendums, including one over the status of the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, have been deferred beyond legal deadlines.
As lawmakers read out the agreement in parliament, loyalists of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr banged folders on tables and waved placards that read: "No, No Agreement." Others chanted: -- "Yes, yes Iraq. No, no agreement."
But the lawmakers reading the pact spoke louder into their microphones, drowning out the Sadrists.
Sadr has long opposed the presence of U.S. troops. In recent months, his followers have staged demonstrations against the security pact; he has vowed to launch attacks on American troops if the agreement is approved. All 30 members of his bloc were among those who voted against the agreement.
"The agreement legitimizes the occupation," said Aqeel Hussein, a Sadrist lawmaker. "But our people will not accept the occupation to continue. We shall use all means and legal and constitutional methods to make up for the injuries and damages resulting from this agreement on the Iraqi people."
Members of the Fadhila Party, a Shiite ultra-religious party, boycotted the vote.
"We did not vote because we are not satisfied that there are enough guarantees for Iraq through this agreement," said Hassan al-Shammari, the party's leader. But he added that his party will support the government.
"The passage of the security agreement with the U.S. is a major credit for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa party, and this will definitely affect the results of the upcoming provincial elections," he said.
Mohammed al-Daini, a Sunni lawmaker who voted to reject the agreement, said that the county would be "shackled for many years politically, economically and security-wise" because of the pact. "Whomever voted for this agreement will bear the responsibility of the negative results from it," he said.
In a statement, U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, applauded the vote. The agreements "formalize a strong and equal partnership between the United States and Iraq. They provide the means to secure the significant security gains we have achieved together and to deter future aggression," the statement read.
The last-minute demands by Sunni politicians delayed the vote, originally scheduled for Wednesday. Iraq's Sunnis are concerned that the pact would allow Maliki and other Shiite leaders to wield considerable power over Iraq. But Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers offered assurances that the government would work to bring more Sunnis into Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces and to release more Sunni detainees being held in U.S.-run prisons. All 35 lawmakers in the Iraqi Accordance Front who were present voted for the agreement, Dulaimi said.
In interviews across the nation, Iraqis expressed mixed opinions about the agreement.
"This agreement will keep Iraq under occupation for another three years and the resistance against the occupation would be considered illegal," said Hamid Hussein Mohammed, 44, a government employee in the northern city of Mosul. "This agreement is a shame on Maliki's government."
In the southern city of Basra, English teacher Murtada Jawad, 30, disagreed.
"What happened today shows how strong Maliki is, because he convinced all the political blocs to pass the agreement despite their divisions," she said.
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington, special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Zaid Sabah and Aziz Alwan in Baghdad, and Washington Post staff in Mosul, Kirkuk, Basra, Najaf, Tikrit, Fallujah and Baqubah contributed to this report.