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    Middle East
     Nov 25, 2008
Last-minute scramble over Iraq's pact
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - A meeting of the Iraqi parliament scheduled for Monday was postponed until Wednesday, at the request of parliamentarians who wanted more time to study the provisions of the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) security accord with the United States.

The controversial SOFA, which calls for withdrawal of all US troops by 2011 yet gives the US dramatic long-term privileges in Iraq, has caused a stir within the Iraqi political community, dividing Iraqis like never before since the US invasion of 2003.

Over the weekend, parliament met for six hours, angrily debating the SOFA. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who was initially not too enthusiastic about the agreement, made it clear that it cannot be


forced on the Iraqi people and must be ratified by parliament. A narrow victory or close ballot was unacceptable, he said, because this would deepen political divisions among Shi'ites, Kurds and Sunnis. Maliki wants consensus because he does not want to go down in Iraqi history as the man who chained Iraq to a long-term, unpopular treaty with the United States.

He wants lawmakers from the Sunnis and Kurdish groups to shoulder responsibility for the pact. Last week, his cabinet unanimously voted for the agreement. To secure a simple majority, Maliki needs 140 votes in the 275-seat parliament. If parliament fails to reach consensus on Wednesday, debate will be postponed until mid-December, as parliament then goes into recess due to the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. Even if it passes, however, it will have to be signed off by President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies, both of whom have veto powers. Each party is expected to ask for a hefty price to say "yes" to the agreement in parliament on Wednesday.

Watching the weekend debate, which was broadcast live on Iraqi TV, one gets a feeling of how polarized Iraqis have become. The 44 members of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the 30 members of the Sadrist bloc, 11 members of a small Sunni bloc the Iraqi Dialogue Front, and the 15 members of the Fadila Party, are all likely to vote negatively, if a deal is not struck in advance with the prime minister.

That adds up to 100, a number that could become dangerous if supported by the undecided bloc of former prime minister Iyad Allawi, which holds 25 seats. Some, mainly independents, are clearly buying time, arguing that if they manage to postpone ratification until President George W Bush leaves the White House in January, they can negotiate a new deal - a better deal - with president-elect Barack Obama.

Others, like the Shi'ite bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr, are categorically opposed to any kind of deal with the US. Some, close to the prime minister, want to pass the bill but reserve the right to revoke it if the United States violates it. Cabinet members like Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir Obeidi - a Sunni - called on deputies to sign, claiming, "The alternative is much worse than the agreement."

Obeidi noted that if the US troops leave - as Obama has pledged - before signing a deal, Iraq would be exposed to serious security problems that it cannot deal with on its own, with no proper army or police force. Others call for putting the agreement up for a national referendum, to be approved or rejected directly by the Iraqi people.

Some realities are now surfacing on what the pact actually means for the future of bilateral relations between Baghdad and Washington. In addition to maintaining bases in Iraq and having the right to use Iraqi water, soil and airspace, the US would have to defend Iraq against any revolution, coup or external threat. Iraq was finally given the "limited" right to prosecute US soldiers and citizens involved in illegal activity on Iraqi territory, if the crimes were committed off-base and off-duty.

Also, Iraq was given the right to say "no" to the Americans if they wanted to launch a war from its territory on neighboring countries. It was previously feared, by the Iranians and their Iraqi proxies, that the agreement would be used to legitimize the use of Iraqi territory to launch a war on Iran. Now that Iran is assured, Iraqi Shi'ites of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) can approve such an agreement. Not only is the UIA now lobbying for the SOFA - to please the Americans who helped bring it to power during the last parliamentary elections - Maliki also is threatening to resign if the agreement does not pass on Wednesday.

Sunni bargaining
The Iraqi Accordance Front has made it clear, however, that its 44 members of parliament will only vote affirmatively if Maliki promises greater power for Iraqi Sunnis. That would include a general amnesty setting former Ba'athists free, along with members of what was once known as the Sunni insurgency. They are demanding amendments to the Iraqi constitution, lifting of the de-Ba'athification laws, revoking privileges granted to the Kurds in northern Iraq, and more seats in the Iraqi cabinet, with the right to veto any legislation they see as harmful to Iraqi Sunnis.

More ambitious Sunni politicians are toying with the idea of re-structuring the balance of power in post-Saddam Iraq, which gave the presidency to the Kurds, the premiership to the Shi'ites, and parliament to the Sunnis. They are thinking of demanding the presidency, which had traditionally been in their hands until the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Others are even thinking of asking for a halt to any further executions of senior members of the Saddam regime. Maliki, who has turned down many of these requests in the past - and repeatedly failed to bring the Front back into his cabinet - will probably agree to most of these demands for the sake of the agreement within the Iraqi parliament. The Front does not believe the prime minister, however, and many believe that he does not have the power to push through with these reforms. Some might even condition that he leave office, and be replaced with a premier who is acceptable to Iraqi Sunnis, as a price for voting for the agreement on Wednesday.

Kurdish bargaining
If the Sunnis are bargaining with the prime minister, then so would other parties in the political system, including his one-time allies, the Kurds. Maliki's relationship with the Kurds deteriorated recently because he failed to respond to any of the critical issues related to northern Iraq. He failed to protect the region against attacks from the Turkish Army, and did nothing to advance the issue of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city that Kurds want incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan. Previously, while he was trying to win favor of the Kurds, Maliki worked on uprooting Arab families from Kirkuk, to increase the city's Kurdish population.

That would come into handy, he claimed, when a referendum would be held in Kirkuk, to see if its inhabitants wanted to remain part of Iraq, or join Iraqi Kurdistan. Simultaneously he helped transport Kurds back into Kirkuk, claiming that they had been illegally uprooted from the city under Saddam Hussein. This assistance has come to a grinding halt and no referendum has yet been held on the future of Kirkuk. Maliki realizes that if he enlarges the territory controlled by the Kurds, which currently encompasses three of Iraq's 18 provinces, he would forever alienate mainstream Shi'ites like Muqtada al-Sadr, and Sunnis.

Additionally, he would enrage neighboring countries like Iran, Turkey, and Syria, who all suffer from a similar Kurdish threat. It would open a Pandora's box, and inspire similar demands from autonomy seeking politicians, like his other ally Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), who wants an autonomous Shi'ite district in southern Iraq.

The Kurds, angry at Maliki's unfaithfulness, lifted the lid they had placed on the activities of the Peshmerga, their official militia, making the prime minister look silly. More recently, they announced that they had bought small arms and ammunition from Bulgaria - completely bypassing the central government in Baghdad. The weapons arrived on three cargo planes in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah last September, without the Defense or Interior Ministers in Baghdad being informed. That raised eyebrows on what kind of a state Nuri al-Maliki was running if militias were allowed to roam freely and arms could be bought and delivered into Kurdistan, right under his nose, without his knowledge. It also embarrasses Maliki in front of Turkey, especially after he promised his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to further control paramilitary activities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdish government then further snubbed him by issuing a statement saying that it "continues to be on the forefront of the war on terrorism in Iraq. With that continued threat, nothing in the constitution prevents the Kurdistan Regional Government from obtaining defense materials for its regional defense." Kurdish statesman Mahmud Othman commented saying, "[T]here is a lot of tension. Maliki and his administration are accusing the Kurdish authorities of violating the constitution and the Kurds are accusing Maliki of violating the constitution."

An additional source of tension between both camps is that of the so-called Support Councils, or as some would say, the prime minister's militias. Maliki recently created a paramilitary wing of supporters, funded by the state treasury, with the ostensible aim of helping maintain security in Iraq. They aim at challenging the might of the Peshmerga, the Awakening Councils of Iraqi Sunnis, or the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, if violence emerges in Iraq, as a result of the security agreement talks.

These councils enraged President Talabani - a Kurd - who called on Maliki to suspend them at will or face their suspension by the Presidential Council. The two Kurdish parties echoed Talabani's call, claiming that Maliki had created them to consolidate his grip on areas with a Kurdish population. So did Talabani's deputy Tarek al-Hashemi, a Sunni, who feared the Support Councils for similar reasons. For his part, Maliki had claimed that the Support Councils are no different from the Awakening Councils, created by the US in 2007 to combat al-Qaeda. The only difference was that the Awakening Councils were all drawn from Sunni tribes while the Support Council were Shi'ite.

If the Kurds intend to play the spoiler, they can close down the Support Councils to irritate the prime minister or mobilize their 75 deputies in parliament to veto the security agreement with the US. That would theoretically bring the number of vetoes up to nearly 200 (National List, Sadrists, Sunni bloc, Accordance Front, Fadila, and Kurds).

They wouldn't do it, however, due to the strong relationship that binds them to the United States. They would bargain with Maliki, milking certain concessions from him, like more action on Kirkuk, and the right to maintain and expand the Peshmerga. They still have to face the heavyweight UIA, which Maliki and Hakim lead, and which controls an 83-seat majority in parliament.

According to the Saudi daily al-Hayat, at this stage, 104 members of parliament will surely vote against, but three members of the Accordance Front have been brought onboard to say yes by the UIA. Additionally, fearing for their lives, many might not show up - and some have already excused themselves, claiming that they will be in Mecca, performing the annual hajj pilgrimage of Muslims.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Damascus.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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(Nov 21-23, 2008)


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