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