After a news conference at the White House, President Barack Obama (R) and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki (L) walk away together. Though they discussed the US withdrawal deadline, neither Obama nor Maliki mentioned the Iraqi public vote to determine whether that deadline will stand. (Photo: Reuters)
When Iraq's Parliament ratified its security pact with the US last year, allowing the presence of US troops until the end of 2011, it built in a provision for a public referendum vote to take place. This would let the Iraqi people decide the ultimate future of the pact. If the public voted to negate it, the US withdrawal deadline would have been shifted up to next summer.
The vote, scheduled to take place by July 30, never happened.
No formal delay was enacted, but the missed deadline came after persistent urging from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who advocated a postponement until January 2010. Iraq's Parliament - now led by a new speaker sympathetic to Maliki - cooperated, neglecting to bring the procedural law governing the vote's terms to the floor.
American interests likely played a significant role in the missed vote. The postponement came a week after Maliki's White House visit, during which both he and President Obama reiterated the December 2011 deadline for withdrawal. Neither mentioned the referendum.
Moreover, a mid-June New York Times article stated, "American diplomats are quietly lobbying the government not to hold the referendum," and suggested that any delay in voting might be "in deference to American concerns."
Last Thursday's deadline slipped by quietly, with most Iraqi leaders staying mute on the subject. However, Tariq al-Hashemi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents, summed up the frustrations of many.
"This date had been carefully chosen to provide the necessary time to have a tangible result," Hashemi said in a public statement. "Failure to meet the date is a delay that denies the Iraqi people their rights."
Withdrawal Deadline Tug-of-War
The pro-occupation elements of Iraq's government had reason to be scared of a referendum. If Iraqis had cast their votes last Thursday, they may well have rejected the security pact (otherwise known as Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA).
In an extensive March ABC/BBC poll, a plurality of Iraqis said they'd prefer a quicker timetable for US withdrawal than the one specified in the SOFA.
A rejection of the SOFA would have accelerated the US withdrawal deadline to a year from the vote's date: July 30, 2010. The vote's postponement means that even if the SOFA is negated in January, US troops will stay six months longer than they would have if the vote had been held in July.
The skipped referendum vote was in large part a time grab, according to Joseph Gerson, author of "The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of Foreign Military Bases."
"As the saying has it, military occupiers, like dead fish, begin to stink after three days," Gerson told Truthout. "Had the vote been held as scheduled, the most likely result would have been that the Iraqi people would have insisted that US forces leave before the 2011 date. It was a matter of buying time."
The bought time is a boon for the Pentagon, which to date has not made public any back-up plans for an accelerated withdrawal, should the referendum fail. With 130,000 troops and 132,000 contractors still in Iraq, a rejection of the SOFA would leave the US flailing.
For Maliki, whose government is heavily dependent on US support, the delay also means six more months to convince Iraqis that the SOFA is a good idea. Iraq's executive branch is well aware of the issues that would swing a vote against the SOFA, and is hoping that some of those factors improve before the postponed referendum vote takes place, according to Jim Fine, legislative secretary for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
"Concern over continued US detention of Iraqis, continued appearances of US forces in Iraqi cities and towns despite the withdrawal of 'combat troops' from populated areas, and Iraq's continued subjection to UN sanctions stemming from the First Gulf War are factors that influence Iraqi public opinion," Fine told Truthout. "Some months from now, these factors may be at least partly resolved, making it more likely that the public will approve the agreement."
An Uncertain Future
Meanwhile, a mixture of silence and confusion surrounds the referendum vote's prospects for January. Although Maliki recommended setting the vote to coincide with Iraq's elections, no firm date has been set.
The executive branch's hedging on the referendum is symptomatic of a larger rift between the Maliki government and the Iraqi people, according to Gerson.
"I think it demonstrates that the authoritarian government that the US has created in Iraq does not reflect popular Iraqi opinion, and that the government is quite afraid and is working hard to manage and contain the popular will of Iraqis," Gerson told Truthout.
These "management" efforts tend to yield uncertainty more often than unconditional support, according to Ali al-Fadhily, an independent correspondent living in Baghdad, who says that Iraqis are being kept in the dark about the facts of a US withdrawal.
"The picture is vague and Iraqis are divided, and as confused as their leaders want them to be," al-Fadhily told Truthout.
The progress of the SOFA - and how well the two governments are abiding by its terms - is not clear on the US side, either. During the late July meeting between Maliki and Obama, the president spoke of a "full transition to Iraqi responsibility," but when it comes to what that transition means, details are shaky and oversight is lacking.
In the lead-up to the signing of the SOFA, the House Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight held a series of hearings on the questionable legality of the pact. Currently, further hearings are on hold, according to the office of Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts), chairman of the committee.
"We are interested in taking another look at this issue, but nothing has been firmed up," Delahunt's press secretary told Truthout.
A crucial factor in the future of the SOFA is the Iraqi elections, coming up in January. If the referendum and the elections are held simultaneously, and Maliki wins another term in office, he could theoretically ignore the referendum results and stick to the SOFA, according to Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant for the American Friends Service Committee. The matter would then be sent to Iraq's supreme court, prompting an even further delay.
Alternately, the January polls could veer in the opposite direction, ousting Maliki and bringing a pro-withdrawal administration to power.
"If the anti-occupation groups win - and I think they will - they might cancel the SOFA either way, even if it gets a 'yes' vote," Jarrar told Truthout. "If the pro-occupation groups win, they'll pull every possible trick to keep the US as long as they can. So whoever wins the next elections will decide what will happen."
However, the elections may not prove a one-day affair. After Iraq's December 2005 election, five months passed before a Cabinet and prime minister were determined.
Iraq's SOFA referendum may well be relegated to a similar fate: an indefinite conclusion.