Key Sunni may withhold support for US-Iraq pact
Could make a big majority difficult to get
BAGHDAD - A leader of the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament hinted he might withhold support for a proposed pact that would allow American troops to stay in Iraq through 2011, making it difficult for the Shi'ite-led government to win the big victory it needs in today's vote.
A comfortable parliamentary majority would ensure the legitimacy of an agreement that sets a clear timetable for US withdrawal after years of war and could lead to full sovereignty for Iraq.
But intense debate and backroom dealing continued over the pact, which has supporters and detractors from both Sunni and Shi'ite communities jockeying for political gain ahead of provincial and general elections next year.
"The national division over the agreement is very clear," said Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who leads one of three parties in a Sunni bloc called the Iraqi Accordance Front. "Consensus appears to be very difficult, if not impossible," he said yesterday.
Hashemi is a member of a Sunni bloc that seeks a national referendum on the US-Iraqi security pact and other concessions in exchange for its support for the agreement, a position that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has described as political blackmail.
Even if parliament passes the deal - only the barest of majorities would do the trick - it faces an additional hurdle because the three-man Presidential Council, which includes Hashemi, must then ratify it. Each of the three has veto power.
Another obstacle is that if the agreement passes with a narrow majority, it could prompt the country's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to express his dissatisfaction publicly. That would likely sink the deal.
Sistani is revered by Iraq's majority Shi'ites. He has indicated that the agreement was less than ideal but would not object if it passes by a comfortable majority.
If the deal is finally approved, it would set in motion an American withdrawal that could be accelerated if President-elect Barack Obama makes good on a plan to pull out all combat troops within 16 months of moving into the White House in January.
But the Iraqi government has struggled to win over skeptical lawmakers, who see an easy political target in an agreement negotiated with a foreign government that has forces on Iraqi soil. Debate in parliament degenerated into scuffles last week, and Iraqi leaders have delivered dire warnings about the security and economic threats to Iraq if the deal does not pass.
US forces are currently operating under a UN mandate that expires Dec. 31. If the security pact is rejected and the UN mandate is not renewed, American forces would be confined to their bases, leaving Iraqi troops to fend for themselves in a country where security concerns have hampered development.
"The alternatives are dangerous," Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said. "They will push Iraq and its young political experiment into the unknown. . . . Let us not play with the future of this country."
A senior Sunni lawmaker, Omar Abdul-Sattar, said the Presidential Council was working on a package of political reforms demanded by several blocs in exchange for their support of the agreement.
The package would be put to a vote in parliament today, Sattar said. If approved, it would go to the Presidential Council for ratification, he said.
The White House expressed hope that parliament would approve the pact.