Iraqi lawmakers Wednesday came close to voting on a landmark deal that would set a withdrawal date for US troops but instead called for last-minute reforms in exchange for their support on the security pact.
The demands, which could delay the vote to determine the future role of American forces in Iraq by one day or as much as several months, centered around fears that Iraq's Shiite-led government would become too powerful when American forces leave.
Sunni lawmakers also said that their new stipulations, formulated just Tuesday, stemmed from discontent over growing Iranian influence across Iraq and a belief that a new administration in Washington may not honor the terms of the deal, which requires US forces to pull back to their bases next June and depart Iraq altogether in 2011.
"Bush will leave and Obama will take over – I think this is a strategic decision that the Bush government cannot make," says Omar Abdul Sattar of the Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament and a key player in passing any agreement.
Clutching the 19-page Status of Forces Agreement, Dr. Abdul Sattar echoed a widely held sentiment here that undermines almost any debate on the agreement.
"I don't think the American troops will ever withdraw," he says. "Please understand me – the Iranian infiltration has entered our souls, our bodies, our education, our beliefs.... and it happened under the umbrella of the United States."
Lawmakers, up against a deadline of a parliamentary recess this week as dozens of members leave for the pilgrimage to Mecca, met under unusually tight security. Iraqi soldiers ringed the building, partly in response to threats against anyone voting for the agreement negotiated with Washington, one lawmaker says.
In exchange for their support for the security agreement, a wide variety of Sunni, Kurdish, and even Shiite parliamentarians are insisting on a political reform package that would increase checks and balances on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government. For the Sunnis, fears of empowering Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces underpins much of the opposition.
"We are afraid that the Iraqi armed forces or the government will become more powerful," says Ayad al-Samurai, head of the Accordance Front. He says Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, had called Vice President Cheney to brief him on the political reforms being demanded.
The Iraqi government "spent nine months negotiating with the Americans and they want us to decide in 72 hours – this is unacceptable," says Alaa al-Maki of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
Amid the backdrop of an authoritarian prime minister who has run into problems with his Kurdish and Shiite coalition partners, the dispute appears to be wider than sectarian politics.
"It is no longer a sectarian conflict, so we shouldn't look at it like that … the map of alliances is much different than it was two years ago," says Mr. Samurai.
Indeed one thing many of the parties appear to agree on is discontent with Mr. Maliki.
"If we cannot change Maliki's mind, we must change Maliki," says Dr. Abdul Sattar.
He says the Accordance Front would back the Status of Forces Agreement on two conditions: if the political reforms are passed and a separate motion for a popular referendum on the US troop presence six months from is approved.
Parliamentarians loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have called for an immediate withdrawal of US troops and have boycotted the debate. They say they will not endorse the political reform package as being too limited, but support a referendum.
"If it is presented to the Iraqi people, we are certain they will reject it," says Akeel Abdul Hussein, spokesman for the Sadr bloc in parliament.
Asked why they were raising concerns so late in the process, some lawmakers describe it as their duty.
"We are politicians, and as politicians we will discuss and negotiate against everything including the agreement," says Mr. Maki of the Accordance Front.
Outside parliament, some Iraqis couldn't seem to agree on whether they distrusted the Americans or their own politicians more.
"Members of parliament don't care about the people, they just care about themselves," says Ahmed, an entrepreneur who has opened a cell phone shop so new the red welcome mat outside the door is still clean. He says the right thing to do is have Iraqis taking control of their own country. "We need this agreement to put us in the right direction," he says.