Not since the start of Saddam Hussein's trial have Iraqis been so transfixed by a legal and legislative debate. The to-and-fro over the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the U.S. has turned parliamentary politics into prime-time entertainment. In restaurants and cafés across Baghdad, TV screens normally featuring music videos and Arabic soap operas are instead tuned to Iraqi news channels that seem at times to be devoted exclusively to the SOFA story. It's democracy as reality TV.
And it's riveting stuff. For the second straight day, the SOFA discussion in parliament turned into a shouting match as MPs on both sides of the debate hurled insults and accusations of treachery at one another. The deal currently on the table calls for the U.S. to withdraw its troops by the end of 2011 and gives the Iraqi government a much greater say in what U.S. troops do until then. Opponents of the deal warn that the government has signed secret codicils that give the U.S. far greater leeway than advertised and may keep American troops in Iraq indefinitely. Ajil Abdel-Hussein, an MP loyal to the Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, suggested the government was trying to lay the ground for a "new [U.S.] occupation of Iraq." (See pictures of U.S. troops' five years in Iraq.)
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, alarmed that the agreement which has taken nine months of painstaking negotiations was about to unravel, fired broadsides in all directions. At a press conference, he lambasted naysayers as political opportunists who were trying to hold his government for ransom, in effect working against the national interest. His anger was directed not only at the Sunni, Sadrist and secular blocks in parliament, which have formed a loose coalition to oppose the SOFA; he also took an unrelated sideswipe at Kurdish politicians, without whose help he cannot hope to have the agreement ratified.
Maliki may have been emboldened by demonstrations in support of the agreement that have taken place in several cities. Or he may just be desperate: if he can't break the coalition opposed to the deal, the deal is effectively dead. Hoping, perhaps, to frighten his opponents into their senses, he painted a grim picture of what would happen if the SOFA weren't ratified. Iraq, he said, would have to ask the United Nations to renew the mandate that allows the U.S. military to occupy the country, and that would mean Iraq's security would remain in American hands.
That, Maliki said, would leave tens of thousands of Iraqi detainees in U.S.-run prisons a not-so-subtle hint to Sunnis and Sadrists, who complain that many of their supporters are unfairly detained. And U.S. soldiers and contractors would remain immune from Iraqi law, a fact that angers Iraqis of all political stripes. What's more, the Prime Minister said, the Americans would remain in control of Iraqi airspace, "and they will have the right to cancel even my flights."
At two restaurants I visited, opinion was evenly divided. Although most Iraqis chafe at the constant reminders of the U.S. military presence checkpoints, patrols, helicopters and jets overhead many believe American arms have helped bring something approaching normality to much of the country. "I don't like the 2011 deadline. The Americans should stay as long as necessary," said Ziad Mohammed, a Sunni laborer. Fateh Hilli, a Shi'ite shopkeeper, disagreed: "The American presence is a national humiliation and should be removed at once."
The SOFA, passed by Maliki's cabinet last weekend, needs to be approved by the 275-member parliament. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most important Shi'ite cleric, has said any deal with the U.S. must be passed by a big majority in order to be truly legitimate in the eyes of the people. That seems unlikely. If the Sunni-Sadrist-secular alliance can break off a few MPs from Maliki's own Shi'ite-Kurdish block, they may even be able to defeat the proposition.
Maliki's government is bracing for the worst. Spokesman Ali Dabbagh told TIME that if the parliament fails to ratify the agreement, the government will ask the U.N. to extend the mandate but allow for the possibility that it may last months rather than an entire year. A vote on the agreement is due on Monday, but more disruptions are likely. Al-Sadr has called for a massive anti-SOFA rally in Baghdad on Friday. Maliki will likely launch an eleventh-hour media blitz to try to convince Iraqis that the agreement is the only way forward. It's a good bet Iraqis will remain glued to their TV screens.