After months of thorny back-and-forth negotiations, several revisions and much hand-wringing, the Iraqi Cabinet on Sunday finally approved the contentious Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which provides a legal basis for U.S. military operations to continue in Iraq after Dec. 31, when the U.N. mandate expires. But it's too early to pop the champagne. The bilateral U.S.-Iraqi security pact is by no means a done deal: it must still be ratified by a fractured parliament. The Cabinet vote had only one nay to 27 ayes, but nine Cabinet members chose to withdraw from the final tally, a foreboding sign of the controversy the agreement will face in the legislature.
The Sunnis have emerged as the main sticking point. Of the six present in the 37-member Cabinet, three stayed away from Sunday's vote, two grudgingly gave their conditional approval and one the Minister for Women's Affairs, Dr. Nawal al-Samarrei voted against the measure because it did not agree to put the pact to a referendum, a key demand of the Tawafuk Front. The front is the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc with 44 of the legislature's 275 seats. "If Tawafuk says no, that means the Sunnis say no," said party spokesman Omar Almashhadani. "We prefer that the U.N. mandate be extended or the Iraqi government agree to a referendum."
It's unlikely that either Washington or Baghdad will agree to any further delays on the agreement. Not only is the Dec. 31 end of the U.N. mandate nearing, but the parliament is slated to go into recess from Nov. 24 till mid-December. Few lawmakers expect a decision on SOFA before the interlude, and some don't expect an agreement before next year.
The U.S. has already made significant concessions on the wording of the final draft, which sets firm deadlines for a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. According to the current draft, U.S. troops will pull out of Iraqi cities by the end of next June and will fully withdraw from the country by the end of 2011, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said at a press conference. The dates "are final," he said, and "not subject to conditions on the ground." Washington has also yielded on the sensitive issue of immunity for U.S. troops. "There will be no immunity for anybody breaking the law," al-Dabbagh said.
But that's not enough for some Iraqi leaders, like the firebrand Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. On Friday he threatened to resume attacks against U.S. troops if they don't withdraw "without retaining bases or signing agreements." By rejecting the pact, al-Sadr, like some other opponents of the deal, is also hoping to burnish his nationalist credentials ahead of crucial provincial polls in January.
Whether al-Sadr's bloc of 28 lawmakers, coupled with Tawafuk's 44, vote for the agreement or not, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has the numbers to push it through. But his governing Shi'ite coalition and its Kurdish partners have made it clear that they don't want to do that without the approval of all of the country's main groups Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds. "We are not prepared to approve this, the Shi'ites and Kurds alone," said lawmaker Redha Taki, a member of the Shi'ite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. "By democratic means we are able to, but it's not good. We want consensus. We need consensus."
Al-Maliki will address the nation on Monday in a bid to garner public support for the agreement. Washington can only sit back and watch as Iraq's exercise in democracy determines the fate of U.S. troops in the country.