November 27, 2008 – With a substantial majority, the Iraqi Parliament on Thursday ratified a sweeping security agreement that sets the course for an end to the United States’ role in the war and marks the beginning of a new relationship between the countries.
The pact, which still must be approved by Iraq’s three-person presidency council, a move expected in the next few days, sets the end of 2011 as the date by which the last American troops must leave the country.
Its passage, on a vote of 149 to 35, according to a parliamentary statement, was a victory for Iraq’s government as well as for the often fractious legislative body, which forged a political compromise among bitterly differing factions in 10 days of intense negotiations.
After notable failures on some critical issues, including a law to divide oil revenues and another to determine the future of the disputed city of Kirkuk, the vote on Thursday represented a coming of age for the three-year-old Parliament.
“This is the day of our sovereignty,” said Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “Together we will go forward toward a free, prosperous and glorious Iraq, where Iraqis can live with pride and dignity and can be proud that they are sons of this beloved country.”
The cabinet approved the final version of the security agreement on Nov. 16. Since then, the government has furiously worked to gain approval of the measure, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, when the United Nations mandate that currently governs American troop operations in the country expires.
In sharp contrast to the atmosphere during the drafting of Iraq’s Constitution in 2005, there was relatively little violence on the streets during the parliamentary negotiations, despite intense and sometimes contentious debates. Within the halls of Parliament, Shiite religious clerics in swirling robes and turbans and women in long black abayas huddled in consultation with secular Sunnis and Kurds in tailored suits. There was far less of the intense mutual distrust that defined the discussions three years ago.
President Bush congratulated the Parliament on the vote.
“Today’s vote affirms the growth of Iraq’s democracy and increasing ability to secure itself,” Mr. Bush said in a statement. “Two years ago this day seemed unlikely – but the success of the surge and the courage of the Iraqi people set the conditions for these two agreements to be negotiated and approved by the Iraqi Parliament.”
The security agreement and an accompanying document that outlines America’s relationship with Iraq in areas like economics, health care and education, would grant Iraq considerable authority over American troop operations, requiring court orders to search buildings and detain suspects.
It also sets out a timetable requiring American troops to withdraw from cities and towns by June 30, 2009, and for all troops to leave the country by the end of 2011 unless the Iraqis and Americans negotiate a separate pact to extend the American military presence. (In contrast, President-elect Barack Obama campaigned under a promise to withdraw all American combat brigades from Iraq by May 2010, but set no date for a complete withdrawal.)
The agreement commanded broad support, although it remains unclear how the several dozen lawmakers who failed to show up would have voted. There remained vocal opposition from followers of the anti-American Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and some hard-line Sunni Arabs who disagreed vehemently with the idea of striking a deal with the United States, a country they view as having waged an illegal war.
“America couldn’t gain international legitimacy before the war,”said Mohamed al-Dayni, a member of the National Dialogue Front, one of the Sunni parties. “And they didn’t have it until a few seconds before the vote, but unfortunately they got it from the Iraqi Parliament.”
Nevertheless, the agreement enjoyed broad support across sectarian lines, largely because of the insistence of Iraq’s pre-eminent religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who from his modest office in Najaf has reached out to leaders from every faction.
The ayatollah told legislators and other members of the Iraqi government that it was not enough just to get the bill through, but that they needed to build a broad national consensus. That meant that the Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers who supported the deal from the outset had to fashion several accompanying measures to satisfy the doubts of a number of wary Sunnis.
Approved Thursday along with the security pact were a nonbinding resolution that included a commitment to address longstanding grievances of minority blocs in the Parliament as well as a law requiring a referendum on the pact to be held in July 2009. This resolution explicitly addressed Sunni demands for the enforcement of an amnesty law for thousands of detainees in Iraqi custody and for a greater sectarian balance in the security forces.
Many Sunnis and independents in Parliament cited the referendum to justify their support of the agreement. With provincial elections scheduled for the end of January, none of the political parties wanted to be accused of making an unpopular agreement with the Americans, who are widely viewed here as an occupation force.
The approval of the referendum was seen as a way to ensure that the Americans respect the pact’s terms – at least in the coming months, said Adnan Pachachi, a senior member of the secular Iraqiya Party. The referendum will make the Americans “more careful and they will not make mistakes that will cause the Iraqi people to reject the agreement,”he said.
Although Sunni lawmakers were the most vocal about their concerns, most of Iraq’s political parties submitted lists of demands to the government, exposing a chasm between Mr. Maliki’s circle and the others. Even some of the toughest holdouts acknowledged that their objections were not to the pact itself; they resisted, they said, because of the likelihood that its passage would bolster Mr. Maliki’s government.
Throughout the government’s negotiations on the pact, which officially began on Aug. 26, 2007, but got under way in earnest last spring, neighboring countries, especially Iran, have been invisible but influential players. As recently as Wednesday night, lawmakers said messages came from Iran expressing disapproval of the political deal that was essential to the pact’s ratification.
But lawmakers nevertheless pushed on with the negotiations, and the final compromise, arrived at less than an hour before the Parliament vote, differed little from the version rejected by the Iranians. Lawmakers who over the past few days had been tense, chain-smoking and sleep deprived, appeared relieved and even a little proud that they had come together and, despite accusations that they lacked patriotism, approved a pact that they had come to call “The Withdrawal Agreement.”
“In 2003 we didn’t have a right to decide, but now we have a chance to deal with reality and to deal with the occupation forces,”said Dhi’aa al-Deen al-Fayeh, a member of the Shiite majority bloc in Parliament. “Now we can regain our sovereignty gradually, and now we have a timetable and the whole world is a witness to this agreement.”