November 27, 2008 in Nation/World

Iraqis likely will vote on pact with U.S.

Sunni lawmakers push for referendum as part of military presence agreement
By Raheem Salman and Tina Susman Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD – Sunni Muslim lawmakers appeared to have won demands Wednesday for a referendum that would let the public throw out a pact letting U.S. troops remain in Iraq for three more years.

The referendum was part of a package of legislation that Sunni legislators demanded be tied to the pact, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, which sets Dec. 31, 2011, as the date for American forces to leave Iraq.

Parliament had planned to vote on the accord Wednesday but delayed at least a day as the ruling Shiite and Kurdish coalition struggled to win support from Sunni parties.

The referendum issue appeared to have been resolved to the Sunnis’ satisfaction after last-minute negotiations, said Iraqi lawmakers from across the political spectrum Wednesday.

“Regarding the referendum, it is included in the legislation,” said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a lawmaker from the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc. Kurdish lawmaker Alla Talabani said the Kurdish alliance also had come to support the Sunnis’ demand for the public vote.

But wrinkles were added as some Sunni legislators held out for additional concessions. They included elimination of a special tribunal that prosecutes members of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime for crimes committed on the regime’s behalf and the scrapping of a law limiting opportunities for former high-ranking members of Saddam’s Baath Party.

“We will not enter the session and vote unless these two demands are agreed upon,” said Mohammed Tamim of the National Dialogue Front, a mainly Sunni slate with 20 seats.

Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers, who represent groups targeted by Saddam, balked at those demands. “Canceling them is difficult because we are among those who suffered from the old regime,” said Alla Talabani, a Kurdish parliamentarian.

Even without Sunni support, SOFA probably could pass the 275-seat Parliament. However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has made clear that he wants broad-based support for the pact. That has meant negotiating long-festering demands from Sunnis, whose blocs hold 71 parliamentary seats.

As a result, what began as a debate over the future of U.S. forces here has evolved into a political showdown reflective of the resentment, sectarian distrust and grudges among Iraqi lawmakers. The main Sunni bloc, Tawafiq, led the way in using the security agreement as a bargaining chip for winning its demand for the referendum.

Smaller factions followed suit. By Wednesday, the list of demands had broadened to include promises of various constitutional changes and amnesty for 16,000 mainly Sunni prisoners held in U.S. detention.

The referendum would be held in July. If voters rejected the pact, Iraq’s government would have to cancel SOFA or demand changes to it. Terms of the agreement allow either the Iraqis or Americans to give one year’s notice of cancellation, so if Iraq scrapped the pact, U.S. forces would have to leave the country in July 2010.

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