Iraq's parliament approved a three-year timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops yesterday, a pact that supporters call a path to sovereignty and opponents say could be used to keep Americans on Iraqi soil indefinitely.
The pact is the first step taken by Iraqi legislators toward ending the U.S. presence in their country since the American-led invasion in March 2003. It is expected to be ratified by Iraq's three-member presidency council.
The vote, held above the din of detractors shouting, "No!" and bashing books and binders on desks, followed intense negotiations among the nation's Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that portend fierce political battles.
Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will be held to promises of political reform made to Sunnis in exchange for "yes" votes. Kurds could use the promises to press their demands for autonomy from a central government they see as too strong. And hard-liners loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - who opposed the pact, fearing it will allow for an open-ended American presence - have warned of renewed violence against U.S. forces by Shiite militiamen.
Of the 198 lawmakers present, 149 raised their hands in favor of the "Status of Forces Agreement," or SOFA.
To win backing from the main Sunni Arab blocs in parliament, al-Maliki's ruling Shiites and their Kurdish allies approved a resolution agreeing to consider a "wish list" rooted in Sunni complaints of political sidelining and persecution. The demands range from amnesty for detainees - many of them Sunnis - held since the U.S. invasion to the incorporation of the mainly Sunni paramilitary group known as the "Sons of Iraq" into government security forces or other jobs.
Rasheed Azzawi, a member of the main Sunni bloc, Tawafiq, admitted there was no guarantee the issues would be resolved. The resolution passed by parliament does not include a timetable or methods for dealing with complaints. But Azzawi said it "will bind the sides morally" to take action beyond mere words.
The Sunnis could face problems of their own down the line. They also demanded, and got, promises of a public referendum on the SOFA in July. If voters reject it, Iraq's government would have to cancel the accord or seek changes to it, possibly leading to a pullout of U.S. forces earlier than the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline. That would leave Sunnis without the extra protection the United States offers against the Shiite-led government and security forces, where grudges left over from Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime run deep.
Earlier in the week, Sadrists opponents had stalled discussions on SOFA and engaged in a near-brawl with other lawmakers as they sought to prevent parliament from moving ahead with the pact.
Yesterday, their chants and desk-pounding nearly drowned out the reading of the SOFA bill and accompanying legislation. After the vote, many of the bloc's 30 members convened a news conference wearing black sashes of mourning and vowed to keep up political resistance.
Al-Maliki's government, however, has portrayed the deal as a surefire path to sovereignty. In a televised address yesterday, the prime minister vowed to make sure Iraq's security forces were brought up to speed quickly to take over from departing American forces.
"We have crossed an important milestone," he said. "It represents the first step in our march to restoring sovereignty."