- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

BAGHDAD

The future of U.S. military operations in Iraq, thus Iraq´s national security future, could be decided this week when Iraq´s 275-member parliament votes on a bilateral accord sanctioning the American military presence in the country for the next three years.

Absent a status of forces agreement (SOFA) or a new eleventh-hour U.N. Security Council mandate, the 140,000 to 150,000 American troops in Iraq on Jan. 1 would have to stay on their bases, start packing and cease all operations - not only security activities and support for Iraqi forces but also projects that employ tens of thousands of local residents.

Rejection would be a bitter blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has touted the SOFA as a reassertion of Iraqi sovereignty, because it not only stipulates a date-certain for U.S. withdrawal but also gives Iraq control over the U.S. military effort until the withdrawal is completed on Dec. 31, 2011.

Failure to approve the agreement would be also been seen as a victory for neighboring Iran and its allies in Iraq, especially anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose supporters have angrily protested the accord at Friday prayers week after week.

“Those [lawmakers] who are in a rush to sign the agreement must know that their terms will eventually end,” the cleric said in a sermon read in Baghdad Friday by his representative, Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mahammadawi. “History will record the honorable position of the nationalists who rejected this humiliating agreement.”

As before, the cleric threatened that a new, elite militia would force U.S. troops out of Iraq if they didn´t leave immediately.

The main power base of the Sadr movement is the east Baghdad slum of Sadr City, named after the cleric’s father, a senior religious figure who was assassinated during the regime of Saddam Hussein.

The cleric, who is thought to be studying in Iran to improve his religious credentials, officially disbanded his Mahdi Army militia earlier this year after it suffered setbacks in the southern city of Basra during fighting with rival militias and Iraqi military forces.

It was also pushed out of the southern part of Sadr City in battles with U.S. and Iraqi forces.

U.S. military intelligence officers say senior leaders of the militia, together with Iran-backed, so-called special groups, have fled to Iran. Some may have returned, but there is no estimate on the number.

“We´ve seen some Iranian EFPs recently,” said Lt Col. John Digiambattista, operations officer for the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division. He was referring to explosively formed projectiles, the deadly bomb that can penetrate U.S. tanks and other armored vehicles.

“We think that´s an indication that some have returned to the Sadr City area,” Col. Digiambattista said.

The SOFA was signed by the United States and Iraq Nov. 16 after about eight months of hard negotiations. The al-Maliki Cabinet rejected a draft accord until language was removed that left open the possibility of U.S. forces remaining in Iraq beyond 2011.

Senior U.S. diplomats, speaking to reporters in Baghdad earlier this month, said the Iraqis requested about a hundred last-minute changes in language, though not all were accepted.

The definite withdrawal date was a major U.S. concession.

Other key provisions include an end to the daily U.S. troop presence in cities, towns and villages by the end of June; a requirement that U.S. forces obtain court warrants before arresting targeted individuals or searching homes for weapons and suspects; and a pledge by Washington not to use Iraq as a launching pad for attacks on neighboring countries, such as happened last month when American troops swooped down on a Syrian village to kill a purported facilitator for al Qaeda fighters.

The al-Maliki government has said that the SOFA requires a simple majority vote in parliament for ratification. But Iraq´s most revered and influential Shi’ite cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has indicated his acceptance of the SOFA is conditional on ratification by a larger number of lawmakers.

News reports say at least one Sunni political bloc is demanding that the al-Maliki government first release Sunni prisoners held for terrorist or insurgency-related offenses before it will approve the SOFA. Under the agreement, U.S. detention facilities are to pass to Iraqi control.

An up-or-down vote is expected Wednesday or Thursday. A reading of the SOFA in parliament last week resulted in pandemonium, with the deputies hurling insults and pounding desks.

On Friday, thousands of al-Sadr supporters demonstrated in central Baghdad, but parliament was calmer after several political leaders reportedly met in private at the home of President Jalal Talabani.

Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul Qadir al-Obaidi has warned that Iraqi forces, although much improved, are still not ready to handle security on their own, a sentiment shared by the U.S. military.

Col. Digiambattista, when asked whether there had been an improvement in Iraqi security forces, said, “We think there has been a tremendous change, especially between April and May and now. They´re a lot more aggressive, a lot more capable, but there is still a way to go.”

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