Iraqi Parliament to Vote Today on “Status of Forces Agreement”

The Iraqi Parliament is expected to vote today on the “Status of Forces Agreement” (SOFA), a document that, if passed, will establish guidelines for US forces in Iraq and, more importantly, set a timetable for their withdrawal. Washington and Baghdad signed on to a draft of the agreement earlier this month. If it is accepted today by at least 138 of the 275 members of Iraq’s parliament, the document will then go to the Iraqi presidential council for final approval. SOFA, which the Iraqis are already informally calling “the withdrawal agreement,” mandates that US forces pull out of Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and leave the country entirely by December 31, 2011, effectively ending the US occupation of Iraq.

According to Peter Galbraith, a senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, who has written extensively on the American occupation for the New York Review of Books, the agreement represents “a stunning and humiliating reversal of course by the Bush administration, which had vehemently opposed any timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.” But things change, and especially with Barack Obama’s impending inauguration, SOFA is perhaps more acceptable to the current administration than leaving the timetable for withdrawal entirely in the hands of its successor. “The signing of this agreement, along with the election of a new president who ran on a platform to end the war in Iraq, suggests that anti-Iraq efforts have not been in vain,” says John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World. “The agreement reflects the views held by the majority of Iraqis and Americans that it is time for US combat forces to start getting out of Iraq.”

Still, not all Iraqis are eager to see US forces leave. A Sunni bloc within the Iraqi Parliament, joined by a few renegade Kurds, are said to be holding out on ratification of SOFA. Their primary concern is “how they’ll be treated by the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki” once US forces depart, according to today’s Wall Street Journal. Iraqi Sunnis formed the bulk of the insurgency in past years, but have more recently become partners in the American occupation, primarily to counter the ascendance of Shiite parties. US and Iraqi officials have been negotiating for Sunni support in the final hours leading up to today’s vote.

Galbraith shares in the Sunnis’ concern. “For the last two years, President Bush has pretended that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a democrat and an American ally,” he says. “In fact, Maliki is a sectarian Shiite politician who heads a government dominated by pro-Iranian religious parties. The US presence is now no longer serves the interests of Iraq’s ruling Shiite religious parties or their Iranian allies, so we are now being asked to leave.”

UPDATE: The Iraqi parliament has decided to put off the vote until tomorrow morning, allowing more time for SOFA’s backers to persuade opponents of the agreement.