While President Bush was still in office and his administration was trying to come to an agreement with the Iraqi government on terms governing the continued troop presence in Iraq (what is referred to as the Status of Forces Agreement, or “SOFA”), Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani made a public statement demanding that any such agreement enjoy broad support from the Iraqi populace. In response to this, as well as to pressure from Sunni factions, Maliki agreed to subject the SOFA to a referendum in July 2009.
Whatever the motivations, the prospect for a national referendum greatly strengthened Maliki’s hand in the SOFA negotiations, as the parties understood that forcing terms that were overly favorable to the United States would likely provoke spirited opposition and defeat come July. Thus, Maliki – and his close ally and frequent patron, Iran – got most everything that they wanted: a firm timetable for withdrawal, the right to unilaterally demand an accelerated timetable, strict restrictions on US troop activities (with extensive input from Maliki’s government) and an express prohibition on using Iraqi soil to launch attacks on other nations (read: Iran). In fact, according to senior US military leaders in Iraq, the Maliki government has been rather deliberate in terms of exerting its control, pushing its prerogatives to the very limits of the SOFA and beyond.
However, July came and went without a referendum (the referendum provision was part of a non-binding piece of legislation, and Maliki let the date come and go without holding a vote). The reasons for this are unclear, but most likely, Maliki and his allies were satisfied with the terms of the SOFA and the outcomes generated thereby, and they didn’t want to risk its undoing…just yet.
Now, however, Maliki is calling for the referendum in conjunction with national elections to be held on January 16, 2010. If the SOFA is defeated in that referendum (which seems likely), the net effect would be to pushthe withdrawal date of all US forces up about 11 months, from December 2011 to January 2011. That is, unless a new agreement can be reached in the interim to replace the defeated SOFA that satisfies the various political and religious groups (ie, getting Sistani’s sign-off).
So the question arises, why is Maliki pushing for the referendum now? My co-blogger Joel Wing sees political considerations behind the decision:
Now Maliki is on the campaign trail, and is portraying himself as the leader that got the Americans to leave Iraq. Maliki for example, called the June 30, 2009 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq’s cities a national holiday and a great victory…Maliki needs to balance the continued need for U.S. support with his desire for a nationalist image. He appears to be going for the route that will assure him the most votes.
Juan Cole offers a guess as to Iran’s role:
I am just speculating, but I wonder if this measure was pushed by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is close to the ayatollahs in Tehran, who in turn may want to speed up the US withdrawal because they have become afraid of a ‘color revolution’ in Iran promoted by the US. Staging such things from neighboring Iraq would be easier than doing it from a greater distance.
I would add that Maliki himself is close with Tehran, and was careful to protect Iran’s interests via the SOFA negotiations. So this push could have Iranian backing without the Supreme Council being the primary, or sole, vehicle. Despite the ludicrous claims by neoconservatives seeking to patch up tattered reputations, it should be clear that Iran has come out a winner for our Iraq misadventure, and their interests and goals will have receptive ears and frequent supporters in any foreseeable Shiite/Kurd dominated Iraqi government.
There is one other possibility to consider. Maliki could be raising the specter of a referendum to, again, compel US cooperation in terms of adhering to the SOFA provisions. As Juan Cole notes, General Odierno has repeatedly stated his desire (and expectation) that US troops should remain in Iraq well past the SOFA deadline. Odierno is also pushing for new deployments of forces near cities in Iraq’s north, around the Kurdish flash points.
By invoking the threat of a referendum, Maliki can wield a potent stick to garner US good behavior, coupled with the carrot that if the US behaves, Maliki will once again scuttle the referendum. Or, he could hold it as planned and then negotiate a new SOFA with terms tilted even farther in favor of the Iraqis (or better yet, in favor of his government). Because it is not just compliance with the SOFA that Maliki is after, it’s his ability to continue to use the US military to weaken his rivals and consolidate his power.
I’ve got a better idea though: let’s push for an accelerated timetable for withdrawal ourselves.