Iraq’s parliament passed the Status of Forces Agreement today (Source: Alsumaria TV)
At 2 P.M. Baghdad time Iraq’s parliament passed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). There are 275 members of parliament, but only 198 showed up today November 27. Out of those approximately 144 or 149 depending upon the source, voted for the SOFA. At the same time, the legislators also voted for a resolution on political reforms that the Sunnis demanded in return for their votes. The bill said that the government needed to work towards revising the constitution, allowing more Sunnis in the security forces, integrating the Sons of Iraq, and general reconciliation. The act had no specifics to it however, and was more a statement of purpose rather than an actual law that had to be implemented.
The opposition to the SOFA, which never had the votes to stop it from passing in the first place, split. Followers of Moqtada al-Sadr protested while hands were being counted in parliament. Afterwards they said they would continue with their objections to the pact. The Fadhila party representatives boycotted the proceedings entirely. They said they did not vote for the agreement because there were no guarantees that it would actually be implemented. The Iraqi National List of former Interim Prime Minister Ilyad Allawi that was originally against the agreement, ended up supporting it.
More importantly, the Sunnis voted for the SOFA, but their demands may never be met. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni coalition, and the National Dialogue Bloc, an independent Sunni party, all voted in favor of it. They held out for their concessions because they are afraid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s growing power. They fear that after the U.S. leaves, Maliki will be able to do as he pleases and continue to politically isolate them, so they wanted guarantees that the government would continue to work towards reconciliation. Shiite politicians however were resentful of the fact that the Sunnis were able to hold the SOFA vote hostage to their demands. Members of the United Iraqi Alliance repeatedly went to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani asking if they could ignore the Sunnis, and carry on the vote without them, but he told them they needed a national consensus on the agreement. The fact that the Shiites were angry with the Sunnis doesn’t fare well for how their demands will be treated in the future. Maliki already looks at the Accordance Front as a stepchild, and the government has not followed any of the reconciliation acts that have passed the way they were legislated. That will probably mean that the bill calling for political compromise that was voted on along with the SOFA will remain a resolution, rather than lead to actual action.
There are several more steps that Baghdad has to follow now on the SOFA. The agreement is to be sent to the Presidential Council, which is made up of President Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi of the Iraqi Islamic Party, for final ratification. The Council is expected to pass it. The SOFA will then go into affect on January 1, 2009. The parliament also passed a bill calling for a referendum on the agreement to be held in July 2009. If the Iraqi public votes against it, Iraq will have one year to withdraw from the agreement, and U.S. troops will have to leave. That will be the real test of the SOFA.
Winners And Losers
There are some clear winners and losers of this entire process. Although the Sunnis got their bill passed, they will probably come out on the bottom again as the Kurds and Shiites still monopolize most of the power in the government. The Sadrists also remain on the outside. They have promised to continue their protests against the agreement, but that will have little actual affect, as the Sadr Trend appears to be a fading movement at this time. Fadhila was the other party that was in the opposition, but remains a small regional Shiite party. The U.S. also turned out to be a major loser. President Bush once rejected any timeline for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Now he has agreed to one. The White House was always in a position of weakness in the negotiations because Bush wanted an agreement before he left office, so he gave in on almost every demand that Iraq made.
On the other hand, the biggest winner was Prime Minister Maliki. He has established himself as the nationalist leader of Iraq. He can now claim that he got the U.S. to agree to pull out of the country. He will use this to his advantage in the January 2009 provincial elections and the parliamentary ones that are to follow. As reported earlier, Maliki is already the most popular politician in the country. He now appears to be on a role after cracking down on his opponents within the country, and taking on his allies, he has now won a victory against the Americans. He still has to worry about his coalition members the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the Kurds who were making moves to remove him before the SOFA vote. This may accelerate now that Maliki has improved his position again, but might run into opposition from Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the United States who stand behind him. Either way, they are dealing with a strengthened Prime Minister who was almost pushed out of office in late 2007.
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