Discontent over Maliki threatens US-Iraqi security pact

Wednesday's vote on a security pact to allow US troops to remain in Iraq for three more years is being seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Maliki's performance.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Pitchman: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, second from right, met Sunday with politicians who have been reluctant to back a pact letting US troops to stay in Iraq for three more years.
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A wave of discontent with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has spilled over into opposition to a crucial pact governing a US troop withdrawal from Iraq, leaving Iraqi officials scrambling to find enough votes to pass the legislation in parliament.

In a rare coordinated campaign, several cabinet members have publicly warned of dire economic repercussions and security woes if the deal isn't approved and US forces begin decamping Jan. 1.

Iraq's most influential Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called for politicians of all parties and sects to support the deal. But against a backdrop of parliamentary wrangling – which included a brawl in parliament – the government has lowered its expectations for a broad consensus.

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While Mr. Maliki has reached across the aisle to recalcitrant politicians in a bid to win support, many are viewing Wednesday's vote on the pact as a referendum on his leadership.

"The opposition to this is not about [the security agreement], it's about Maliki," says a senior US official.

The Shiite prime minister's popularity soared this spring after he sent Iraqi troops to Basra, which had been overtaken by militias. But since then a combination of what has been seen by Sunnis as a heavy-handed approach in Iraqi Army operations in northern Iraq, discontent by the Kurds over his move to consolidate tribal councils in Kurdish areas, and what is seen as a generally autocratic approach has led to a resurgence of criticism, including some calls for a no-confidence motion.

"He doesn't realize that a coalition put him in power," says one senior Iraqi official.

Sunni groups have also been asking for guarantees on detainees released from US prisons. The pact calls for the US to hand the detainees over to Iraqi custody – dominated by Shiite security officials.

If parliament rejects the agreement, the Iraqi government would either have to ask the United Nations to extend the wartime mandate authorizing US troops in Iraq or face the prospect of US forces starting to withdraw personnel and equipment at the beginning of next year.

Maliki, in what was seen as a move to put pressure on those still holding out, said Sunday he would not ask the UN to renew the mandate.

More than 140,000 US troops are in Iraq under the original mandate, which authorized military force in Iraq and gave the US-led coalition sweeping powers. It expires at the end of this year. The new status of forces agreement and framework agreement governing the US-Iraqi relationship calls for American troops to withdraw to bases outside Iraqi cities by next June and to leave the country entirely by 2011. After months of negotiations, it also includes provisions demanded by the Iraqi government, such as removing some forms of immunity against US soldiers and contractors.

Iraq's cabinet approved the deal last week. Now it's up to the parliament that has been debating the measure since.

Accurately gauging the level of support has been difficult since some lawmakers privately support the agreement while publicly opposing it.

Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says the government has been working hard to rally votes.

"I am hopeful that most of the key parliamentary blocs have expressed their support – some of them publicly, some of them privately. So from now until Wednesday, I think there will be more and more lobbying, let's say, to get a simple majority," he told the Monitor. "There is opposition, definitely. Even if it is ratified, it might be a close call."

US officials said they were not ruling out the possibility of there not being enough votes to pass the agreement at all. "Pretty much they don't have a cushion," says one US official who asked to remain anonymous.

At Saddam Hussein's former palace, Iraqi parliamentarians and officials have streamed in for consultations with US State Department officials trying to provide assurances and in some cases broker political deals.

Political parties and factions are holding their own closed-door meetings, many aimed at seeing what they can pry out of the government in exchange for their support, Iraqi politicians say. If parliament does not vote Wednesday, many of its members plan to leave on religious pilgrimage to Mecca, making a further vote unlikely.

"Some people are raising concerns about the day after," says Mr. Zebari in an interview, referring to what he described as unwarranted fears by some factions that the agreement would give the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government more power.

At an entrance to the Green Zone, where the palace and the US Embassy are located, a female suicide bomber who may have been mentally disabled blew herself up at a checkpoint – one of three attacks Monday that killed an estimated 20 Iraqis. Officials have warned of more violence if the agreement is rejected and US troops leave immediately.

Zebari says he has been working with the UN toward resolving a key concern that has arisen in the agreement – the potential liability of a trillion dollars' worth of claims against Iraq arising from actions of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Under the UN agreement, Iraq's oil revenues are protected from those claims. The US-Iraqi security agreement has no such protection. Zebari says he is asking the UN to extend protection while Iraq figures out how to settle some of those claims.

US officials say the agreement is particularly complicated because most status of forces agreements are negotiated after combat and approved in secret.

"Passions run high on issues of national sovereignty," says Adam Ereli, a US Embassy spokesman. "I think this is historic – people are having a public debate on issues of national importance."

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