In less than a month, the Iraqi people vote on a referendum that could lead to a quicker withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq. (Photo: AP)
As US combat troops retreated from Iraqi urban centers on Tuesday, signs of an incomplete withdrawal abounded. Some soldiers remained in cities, their labels changed from "combat troops" to "trainers" or "advisers," while others relocated to bases close outside city borders. However, the US-Iraq security pact approved last December requires that every single US troop withdraw from the country by December 31, 2011, and an upcoming referendum vote in Iraq may demand an even quicker deadline.
In less than a month, the Iraqi people may vote on the validity of the security pact, which permits the continuing US presence in Iraq. If Iraqis reject the pact, the US would be required to withdraw from the country within a year, speeding the deadline to July 30, 2010, unless a new deal is negotiated before then. And according to Kate Gould, legislative program assistant for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), the negotiation of a new bilateral agreement seems unlikely.
"A 'no vote' would be a resounding anti-occupation mandate from the public that would make negotiating a new agreement with the occupying government excruciatingly politically painful, so the pressure would be on the US to withdraw in one year from the popular vote," Gould said.
Although a deadline to hold the upcoming referendum - July 30 - was built into the security pact, and the Iraqi Parliament remains firmly committed to that date, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now attempting to push back the vote. His cabinet issued a statement in June urging that the vote be delayed for six months. Maliki said a postponement would save money and time, since the referendum vote could be combined with the January parliamentary elections.
American pressure may well be behind Maliki's attempt to delay - or perhaps even cancel - the vote, according to Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee.
In fact, a mid-June New York Times article notes, "American diplomats are quietly lobbying the government not to hold the referendum."
Pentagon officials are lining up in opposition to the prospect of an imminent withdrawal. In late May, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey predicted that the US would maintain combat troops in Iraq until 2019. And although the security pact mandates that all combat troops withdraw by 2010, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has indicated that combat brigades may remain in Iraq beyond that deadline under the guise of "advisory and assistance brigades."
A "no" vote on the referendum would put a wrench in those plans, notes Carolyn Eisenberg, co-chair of the legislative working group of United for Peace and Justice.
"If the Iraqi referendum was held on schedule and the Iraqi people voted the SOFA [security pact] down, it would become far more difficult for the Obama administration to keep the US troops there for any extended period," Eisenberg said.
However, a mandate from the Iraqi people may not be enough to overrule the Pentagon's plans for Iraq. High-ranking military officials have expressed fear that the referendum will not pass, saying they are not prepared for a rapid withdrawal. In late May, Gen. Raymond Odierno cited the referendum multiple times in his motion to withhold photos of detainees being tortured; he worried that the release of the images would encourage Iraqis to overturn the security pact.
The Obama administration has not announced any back-up plans for a speedier withdrawal, in case the referendum fails.
Gould notes that, should the pact be voted down, US officials may simply disregard it.
"We have been alarmed to hear several senior staffers suggest that if Iraqis vote against the agreement, then the U.S. would still stay in Iraq since it is not prepared to withdraw within one year," Gould said. "U.S. indifference to a popular vote in Iraq on its very presence would be a direct and glaringly blatant affront to the Iraqi democratic system. To show any respect for the democratic aspirations of the Iraqi people, the U.S. should prepare for these various early military withdrawals." <b>Congress Takes Stand Against Endless Occupation</b>
As Parliament pushes for a timely referendum in Iraq, legislative wheels are turning on the US side as well. Countering the Pentagon's predictions of an indefinite occupation, Congress is now making unprecedented moves to ensure an end to the US presence in Iraq.
Tucked into next year's Defense Authorization Act, passed overwhelmingly by the House last week, is a kernel of hope for a complete troop withdrawal.
The bill would require the secretary of defense to submit extensive reports to Congress every 90 days, detailing the progress of troop drawdowns.
"This report language is a landmark victory because it's the strongest signal yet that Congress is committed to ensuring the Pentagon adheres to full withdrawal and other obligations it has under the U.S.-Iraq security agreement," said Gould. "This exhaustive reporting requirement from the Pentagon lays the foundation for oversight to ensure the US gets from over 130,000 troops to zero in two and a half years."
In addition to hardening the 2011 deadline, the language contributes a much-needed element of transparency to the withdrawal process. The required reports, submitted every three months, would include the number of US military personnel in Iraq, a count of the military installations closed or consolidated, an estimate of the military-related items (e.g. equipment and vehicles) removed from Iraq, and a detailed summary of US detainee operations, among other information. According to Gould, the reporting mandate will be even more important if Iraqis vote "no" on the referendum, in order to monitor the logistics of an unforeseen, quicker drawdown.
The reporting requirements recognize a sometimes-overlooked fact: Although the war in Iraq no longer dominates headlines, a messy path to withdrawal is still to come, with political obstacles emerging every step of the way.
"President Obama's promises have convinced many Americans that the Iraq War is over," Eisenberg said. "In reality, the US military is continuing to fight. To achieve peace, we need a far more rapid and complete withdrawal of American troops and private security forces than is now planned."