Iraq May Hold Vote on Early U.S. Withdrawal

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

BAGHDAD, Aug. 17 -- U.S. troops could be forced by Iraqi voters to withdraw a year ahead of schedule under a referendum the Iraqi government backed Monday, creating a potential complication for American commanders concerned about rising violence in the country's north.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's move appeared to disregard the wishes of the U.S. government, which has quietly lobbied against the plebiscite. American officials fear it could lead to the annulment of an agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay until the end of 2011, and instead force them out by the start of that year.

The Maliki government's announcement came on the day that the top U.S. general in Iraq proposed a plan to deploy troops to disputed areas in the restive north, a clear indication that the military sees a continuing need for U.S. forces even if Iraqis no longer want them here.

Gen. Ray Odierno said American troops would partner with contingents of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish regional government's paramilitary force, marking the first organized effort to pair U.S. forces with the militia, known as the pesh merga. Iraqi army and Kurdish forces nearly came to blows recently, and there is deep-seated animosity between them, owing to a decades-long fight over ancestry, land and oil.

If Iraqi lawmakers sign off on Maliki's initiative to hold a referendum in January on the withdrawal timeline, a majority of voters could annul a standing U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, forcing the military to pull out completely by January 2011 under the terms of a previous law.

It is unclear whether parliament, which is in recess until next month, would approve the referendum. Lawmakers have yet to pass a measure laying the basic ground rules for the Jan. 16 national election, their top legislative priority for the remainder of 2009.

Before signing off on the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement last year, Iraqi lawmakers demanded that voters get to weigh in on the pact in a referendum that was to take place no later than last month. Because it did not happen, American officials assumed the plebiscite was a dead issue.

U.S. officials say they have no way to know how the referendum would turn out, but they worry that many Iraqis are likely to vote against the pact. Maliki billed the withdrawal of U.S. forces from urban areas at the end of June as a "great victory" for Iraqis, and his government has since markedly curbed the authority and mobility of U.S. forces.

Senior Pentagon officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Odierno probably will make an announcement later this week or early next week the accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. forces, which now stand at 130,000, by one or two brigades between now and the end of the year. Each brigade consists of about 5,000 troops. Odierno said Monday that he has not decided whether to speed up the plan, which he said remains on schedule.

The acceleration would still be much slower than if the referendum nullified the agreement.

Still, senior Pentagon officials played down Maliki's announcement, saying it was an expected part of Iraq's political process. Senior Iraqi officials did not raise the possibility of the referendum with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when he visited the country earlier this month, Pentagon officials said.

Bahaa Hassan, who owns a mobile phone store in Najaf, south of Baghdad, said he would vote for a speedier withdrawal.

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