Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on Thursday finally got the broad consensus he sought on the Status of Forces Agreement with the U.S. 149 of the 198 lawmakers present in the 275-member National Assembly gave their support to a deal that allows American forces to remain in Iraq until the end of 2011. But Iraq's legislators also put the prime minister on notice: "We want to tell Maliki that we are building a new democracy, and that we're not ready anymore to let the power be in one man's hands, no matter who he is," said Abdel-Bari al-Zebari, a Kurdish lawmaker.
The wide parliamentary approval for the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) opens the final chapter of U.S military involvement in Iraq, setting a firm deadline for withdrawal. The vote, and the divisive deliberations leading up to it, may also mark the beginning of a new season of political conflict in Baghdad, as politicians seek to redistribute power away from the increasingly autocratic prime minister and towards the president and the parliament.
There has been growing discontent among Iraqi politicians over Maliki's bold style of leadership, which has upset both friends and foes alike. In recent weeks, he has antagonized his Shi'ite and Kurdish allies in the ruling coalition by setting up tribal councils that are widely viewed as a direct challenge to their power on the ground. Maliki's Sunni allies in the Tawafuk Front, the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc, have branded the Shi'ite prime minister as "another dictator". And Maliki remains at odds with Shi'ite opponents such as Moqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc of 28 lawmakers vociferously rejected the SOFA vote on Thursday, chanting "no, no to the agreement, yes, yes to Iraq."
Maliki's Shi'ite and Kurdish allies backed the pact, which requires that U.S troops redeploy out of Iraqi towns and cities to bases in the countryside by June of next year, and completely withdraw by the end of 2011. The Sunni Tawafuk bloc also gave it the nod, after securing concessions on its demands for an amnesty for detainees in U.S custody, and for the holding of a referendum on the security pact next July. A ‘no' vote in that referendum could torpedo the deal, and give Washington one year's notice to leave, effectively bringing forward the U.S withdrawal date to the middle of 2010.
The discord in Baghdad's parliament, and on its streets, over the SOFA deal wasn't only about the particulars of the treaty, but also about which Iraqi parties will most effectively leverage the Americans' eventual departure to their own political benefit. It was always going to be politically sensitive so much so that some 77 MPs stayed away from the parliamentary session. Although by Iraqi standards, 198 lawmakers could be considered a healthy turnout, there was much speculation that the no-shows purposely feared publicly committing to the SOFA (especially ahead of provincial polls to be held in January) and so ensured that they were conveniently in Saudi Arabia ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
But many others viewed the treaty and the debate it provoked as an opportunity to change the direction of the country. "This wasn't about [opposing] Maliki as a man," said Nada Ibrahim, a Sunni lawmaker from a smaller political bloc that did not vote for the SOFA. "It's about the political parties in this government, the parties that are thinking in a sectarian way, behaving in a sectarian way. That is the problem. We think we have to share everything in this country, to re-evaluate and rebalance things."
Maliki's hard bargaining on the SOFA deal, in which he forced Washington to make a number of key concessions on issues ranging from a firm deadline for withdrawing from Iraq to restrictions on the operations of U.S. troops currently in Iraq, might have been taken as a point of pride among Iraqi nationalists. Instead, at least among the political class, it merely reinforced a perception that Maliki is a new strongman who does things his own way, without consultation. "He could have been more diplomatic with handling this treaty," said Abdel-Bari al-Zebari, the Kurdish lawmaker. "He didn't reach out to the political blocs as he could have. He didn't inform them." But, al-Zebari said, things may be changing. "The Parliament has got a lot of power, but until now it hadn't exercised it," he said. "Maybe from now on it will."