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Iraqi Political Showdown Looms Over Status Of Forces Agreement

Shi'ite demonstrators rally in Karbala recently in support of the Iraqi-U.S. agreement.
BAGHDAD -- Thousands of supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held a raucous but otherwise peaceful rally in downtown Baghdad last week that was both reflection of events in parliament and a portent of things to come over continued U.S. military presence in the country.

The controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the United States -- after months of wrangling -- has finally been negotiated, signed, and delivered to parliament. Now the 275 members of the body have to ratify it or reject it.

That vote, after several days of shouting and desk pounding during readings of the accord, could come early this week after more debate.

"Those who are in a rush to sign the agreement must know that their terms will eventually end," al-Sadr said in a sermon read in Baghdad by his representative, Sheikh Abd al-Hadi al-Mahammadawi. "History will record the honorable position of the nationalists who rejected this humiliating agreement."

He also reiterated the warning that both the armed and the political wings of his organization would continue to try to force the United States out of Iraq if the legislators did not do so.

The status-of-forces issue carries high stakes for both countries. The agreement is essentially an internationally recognized legal framework that would allow the U.S. military to remain in Iraq for another three years. It also goes further, stipulating how some of those operations are carried out. Without it or a new UN mandate, all U.S. troops would stay in their bases and cease operations on January 1, including all security operations and rebuilding projects, which employ tens of thousands of Iraqi nationals.

"We have to have a legal framework to stay here," General Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said recently. "The bottom line is if we don't have a legal framework, we're going to have to take a look at what happens."

Symbol Of Sovereignty

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has billboarded the measure as a symbol and vehicle of Iraq regaining national sovereignty after five years of U.S. occupation. Among its most prominent provisions: total U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq by January 2012; a pullout of troops from cities, towns, and villages by the end of June 2009; the requirement that U.S. forces obtain legal warrants in noncombat situations for detaining extremist/terrorist suspects as well as for searching homes; and a pledge by the United States not to use Iraqi as a launching pad for attacks on neighboring countries.

The date-certain for a U.S. pullout was a major concession by President George W. Bush, who had adamantly opposed one. It came last week when some members of the al-Maliki cabinet, who had to approve the measure before moving it to parliament, objected to language that would have allowed an Iraqi request for an extension.

Only a simple majority vote is required for ratification and it appears al-Maliki's Shi'ite-Kurdish bloc will have the votes necessary. But approval is still not a certainty. Major blocs of legislators – possibly with an eye to provincial elections in January and the pact's potential as an election issue -- oppose the measure.

Speaking after tough talks on November 23 aimed at increasing support for the deal, al-Maliki hinted at a security vacuum in the event of rejection, saying the only real alternative to the SOFA would be foreign forces' "immediate withdrawal from Iraq," according to Reuters.

Al-Sadr is a Shi'ite political rival of al-Maliki and al-Maliki's Shi'ite-dominated coalition. He has been in Iran since last year and wants an immediate departure of U.S. forces, warning that a continued U.S. presence would result in attacks on U.S. forces by gunmen loyal to him.

Al-Sadr in early summer officially disbanded his Al-Mahdi Army, a militia that had fought government forces and rival militias in the southern city of Al-Basrah. That conflict ended through a cease-fire brokered by Iran. His forces also unsuccessfully fought Iraqi and U.S. forces in east Baghdad. He warned, however, that he was forming a special elite unit to specifically fight Americans if they did not leave Iraq quickly.

Unusual In Its Context

Al-Sadr's capability to do so militarily is a matter of speculation. U.S. commanders believe the early claims and estimates of 60,000 fighters were exaggerated. Also, intelligence shows senior militia leaders fled to Iran earlier this year and have not yet returned. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces control northern Al-Sadr City, while U.S. and their Iraqi counterparts control southern Al-Sadr City. The two areas were the base for his power in Baghdad.

The United States has at least 80 SOFAs in place around the world, but a senior U.S. diplomat said what made this one unique was the war situation in Iraq while it was being negotiated and other factors such as "the intensity of the environment given the fact this is the first time anything like this has ever been done in this part of the world."

"An agreement dealing with these issues going before an open, democratically elected parliament, freely debated among elected representatives, fully transparent has been something quite extraordinary," the diplomat said.

The vote to ratify or reject the accord could come any day, but a vote might also be delayed until midweek.