By the end of this month, July 2009, there was supposed to be a referendum on the Status of Forces Agreement, which set the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq. That’s not going to happen now. Instead, the latest word out of Baghdad is that if the vote is held at all, it will coincide with the January 2010 parliamentary election.
During the negotiations over the SOFA in Iraq’s parliament in 2008, the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front was worried that the deal would give too much power to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They successfully pushed for a Political Reform Document that was passed alongside the SOFA on November 27, 2008. The Reform Document called for power sharing in the government and security forces, and a July 2009 referendum on the security agreement. Maliki gave into the Accordance Front’s demands, because Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani had demanded widespread support for the deal, and the Front was one of the main Sunni coalitions in parliament and members of Maliki’s cabinet. The Reform Document wasn’t binding however. That’s why there has been no power sharing with Sunnis in the government since the bill was passed, and the referendum will not happen on its original date. It was simply a way to appease the Accordance Front and get them to support the SOFA.
If the referendum is delayed until January 2010 that would give Iraqi officials enough time to prepare for it. First the parliament needs to pass a law regulating the election and that sets aside a budget. The Iraqi Election Commission then needs two months to set up the actual election process.
The vote could have dramatic consequences for both U.S. and Iraqi politics. First, if the SOFA is voted down, the U.S. would have one year to withdraw from the country. As of now, the Obama administration has set December 31, 2011 as the date it will have all of its combat troops out of Iraq. If the SOFA doesn’t pass, American troops would have to leave by January 2011. Within Iraq, Prime Minister Maliki could also use the referendum against his political opponents. The Kurdish Alliance and the Accordance Front are two major opponents of Maliki in parliament, and both want the U.S. to stay to check his power. Since 2008 Maliki has been challenging the Kurds in the disputed territories in northern Iraq, as well as arresting selected Sons of Iraq (SOI) members, many of which are aligned with the Accordance Front. The U.S. has stepped in several times to mediate possible military confrontations between the Kurdish and Iraqi security forces, and to release some SOI members. Having the Americans leave is very popular in Iraq right now, so Maliki could use this against these two coalitions in the parliamentary vote.
Iraq is not a country ruled by law. Despite the Political Reform Document calling for a July 2009 referendum on the SOFA, it’s not likely to happen. Rather domestic Iraqi politics seem to be pushing it back to coincide with the January 2010 parliamentary election. It’s unknown how the Iraqi public will vote if the referendum is held, but the opposing Iraqi parties will definitely use it, and that will ultimately determine whether the U.S. timeline for withdrawal will be maintained or have to be dramatically revised.
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