Iraqi lawmakers decided amid a flurry of last-minute negotiations today to delay a vote on a wide-ranging military pact that would have all US troops withdraw from the country by 2011. The 275-member assembly had been expected to endorse the pact, but Iraq's fractured political blocs made several demands leading up to the vote as the government struggled to Marshall a commanding majority. At 4:30pm (1330 GMT) parliament briefly convened to announce it would delay the vote until tomorrow at 10:00am (0700 GMT).
"The general atmosphere indicates there will be an agreement, the leaders have agreed on all the points under discussion except for one," the speaker of Parliament Mahmoud Mashhadani said, without giving further details. The measure would govern some 150,000 US troops stationed in over 400 bases when their UN mandate expires at the end of the year, giving the Iraqi government veto power over virtually all of their operations.
The agreement is similar to so-called Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) concluded with other US allies but marks a major turning point in the relations between the two countries, who have gone to war twice in the last 20 years. It also marks a coming-of-age for the government led by the prime minister Nouri al Maliki, which drove a hard bargain with Washington, securing a number of concessions over more than 11 months of tough negotiations.
The measure enjoys the support of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the Kurdish alliance, and a number of independent MPs enough for it to pass with slightly more than the requisite simple majority of 138 votes. But deputy parliamentary speaker Khaled al Attiya said the government and the UIA were making a last-minute push to assemble a broader coalition. "We do not want to pass this agreement with a difference of two or three or four votes," Mr al Attiya told reporters on the eve of the vote. "For this reason there are continuing efforts to achieve a vast majority."
Mr al Attiya and other officials have said the demands made by the blocs in closed-door sessions do not concern the agreement itself, which was approved by Iraq's cabinet with the support of the main Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish blocs. A spokesman for the National Concord Front the main Sunni bloc with 39 votes said lawmakers were trying to hash out an agreement to meet the bloc's demand for political reforms related to national reconciliation.
The Sunni bloc had also demanded that the agreement be put to a national referendum next year, but Mr al Attiya said yesterday that proposal was dead in the water as far as the Americans were concerned. The agreement has been made possible in part by dramatic improvements in security over the past year, with US and Iraqi forces largely containing the violence and the chaos that erupted in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion.
Iraq won a number of concessions in the deal, including a hard timeline for withdrawal, the right to search US military cargo and the right to try US soldiers for crimes committed while they are off their bases and off-duty. The agreement also requires that US troops obtain Iraqi permission for all military operations, and that they hand over the files of all detainees in US custody to the Iraqi authorities, who will decide their fate.
The pact also forbids US troops from using Iraq as a launch-pad or transit point for attacking another country, which may reassure Syria and Iran, according to the official Arabic version of the pact, translated by reporters. But the English version has not been made public, and US officials in Washington said there may be a public dispute between the two sides over the interpretation of certain parts of the agreement.
"There are a number of areas in here where they have agreement on the same wording but different understandings about what the words mean," said one US official. The accord has drawn fire from certain quarters, including followers of the hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who reject any agreement with the United States and who protested at the accord in Baghdad on Friday. Meanwhile, a roadside bomb exploded in a central square in Baghdad hours before the vote, killing two people and wounding another five, a grim reminder the country's lingering unrest.