IRAQ: Cabinet approves plan for total U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011
After months of tense negotiations and countless amendments, Iraq's Cabinet today approved a Status of Forces Agreement that outlines the future of American troops in Iraq. Under the plan, which now goes to the Parliament, U.S. troops would pull out of Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009 and would leave the country by the end of 2011.
But some opponents say they want a total withdrawal sooner than 2011; others say, whatever the final plan, it should be approved not by politicians but by the public in a referendum.
If you look closely at the photograph above, taken during the Cabinet's vote, you'll notice one hand not raised. The minister with her hands folded in front of her represents the main Sunni bloc in Parliament, which says the public, not Parliament, should decide on such an important pact. Also opposing the pact are lawmakers from Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr's bloc. Sadr on Friday threatened to revive armed elements of his Mahdi Army militia and return to war with U.S. forces if such an agreement is allowed to go through.
Despite these differences, the Cabinet approval had been anticipated following Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's decision to accept what he concluded was the best deal Iraq was going to get from the Americans. That deal includes the firm withdrawal dates, which will not be based on conditions on the ground as the United States had initially wanted. As government spokesman Ali Dabbagh made clear after the Cabinet vote, those dates are "final and decided."
Whatever concessions the United States made to get the pact approved, a statement issued from a U.S. Embassy representative in Iraq said the Americans welcomed the Cabinet vote. "This is an important and positive step," the statement said.
Other major elements of the pact include a ban on U.S. forces searching and raiding homes without Iraqi approval, the right of Iraqis to search shipments of weapons and other packages coming into the country for U.S. recipients, and the right of Iraq's justice system to prosecute American troops for serious crimes under some circumstances.
The question now is what will happen when the pact goes before Parliament, presumably this week. Will the pact's detractors try to prevent its passage, perhaps by staging walkouts and denying Parliament a quorum? Will Sadr make good on his vow to send his personal brigade into battle against the pact? If it passes Parliament, will Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi, who has led the call for a referendum, use his power on the presidency countil to veto it?
As one lawmaker said of the potential hurdles facing the legislature, "This will be an adventure."
--Times staff writers
Photo: The Iraqi Cabinet votes on the Status of Forces Agreement. Courtesy: Government of Iraq parliament.