07/11/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Iraqis Press For Referendum That Could Force Accelerated Withdrawal

According to the New York Times, the Iraqi parliament is "pressing ahead" with plans for a national referendum on the existing Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and Iraq. Alissa Rubin reports that the "measure [is] likely to lose if put to a popular vote with the outcome that American troops could be forced to leave as early as next summer, nearly a year and half ahead of schedule."

For the Obama administration, this represents a sizable kink in their current withdrawal plans. Previously, the administration had been able to fend off questions as to whether or not their withdrawal strategy really constituted withdrawal by stating and restating, as many times as necessary, that everyone was just adhering to the Status of Forces Agreement, that the Iraqi government was the sovereign authority, and that any alterations to the existing SOFA would be made only at the behest of the Iraqis.

Well, the United States and Iraq may have arrived at that point. Over at the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman connects the dots to other recent events:

There's been a cumbersome and confusing series of bureaucratic, political and legislative hangups over the referendum, as Rubin explains, casting doubt on whether it would be held at all. And the United States really wants the referendum to be scrapped, delayed or defeated: one of the arguments made in court last month by Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to keep the torture photos out of the public view was that their release could compel Iraqis to pass the referendum and kick the United States out ahead of 2011.

Complicating everything is the fact that anti-Americanism is in vogue in Iraq right now, and the Sadrist faction is pressing hard for the referendum. But as Rubin notes, the typical mess of internal political and sectarian factors are at work as well:

The referendum was originally pushed by the Sunni Tawaffuk front because its followers are predominantly anti-American, even though many Sunnis fear that without their presence, they will be vulnerable to abuse and sectarian cleansing by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is unlikely to want to speak up in favor of the security agreement for fear that his opponents will use it against him.

One group that will support the agreement is the Kurds, but that, Mr. Attiya said, could diminish the chances of approval because the Arabs are likely to oppose anything the Kurds support.

Ackerman depicts the road ahead as the first "massive challenge" for Iraq ambassador Christopher Hill:

He can continue to press behind the scenes for the Maliki government and the parliament to block or delay the referendum, contending that a premature U.S. departure is a gamble that Iraq can't afford. But if he does that, the inevitable charges about American intentions for permanent occupation will intensify in an election year, risking not only the passage of the referendum but a more anti-American parliament as well. If he doesn't press Maliki and the parliament, the referendum could pass. Would that be the end of the world? No, but it could make the actual withdrawal more chaotic.

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