Iraq puts US presence to a vote
By Mohammed A Salih
WASHINGTON - As Iraqis witness a spike in violence after a months-long relative
lull, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has decided to put its
security agreement with the United States to a public referendum, although the
move appears to be only heightening a sense of uncertainty over the fate of the
Last year, Iraqi and US negotiators included a provision in the Status of
Forces Agreement (SOFA) for a referendum on the presence of US 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 US$100 million for the polls last week, and
cited financial and time constraints as reasons for the delay.
According to the SOFA's roadmap, the US 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 US will embark on a full
withdrawal or keep some forces in troubled areas like Mosul and Kirkuk in the
north, as well as the capital Baghdad.
Discussions of the referendum come against a backdrop of rising violence in
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 Shi'ite 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 US
counterparts in 18 months?
Deadly attacks across the country over the past few days underline the
fragility of the situation. A series of bombings this week has killed more than
160 people, according to news reports, including a blast on Wednesday that
killed at least 72 people at a busy market in Baghdad's Sadr City.
A truck bomb last weekend killed some 75 people in Kirkuk province in northern
Iraq 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
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 US 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 US
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 US 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 Inter Press Service.
Followers of the young Shi'ite cleric Muqtada Sadr were staunch opponents of
the security pact during the debate in the Iraqi parliament last year, decrying
it as a legitimization of the US 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 Shi'ite 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 US 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 US
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.