Sadrist legislators wearing black sashes chanted, waved clenched fists and banged portfolios on their desks in the Iraqi Parliament chamber, but in the end it was all for naught. Parliament Speaker Mahmoud Mashhadani, a truculent man at the best of times, called the question and told the dissidents they could resume their protest afterwards. By the time the clamor ended, the country's Council of Representatives had ratified a controversial security agreement that requires American troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Shrugging off heated arguments about "national sovereignty," Iraq's lawmakers finally moved to redefine the country's relationship with the United States.
After months of negotiations and political theater, the two nations have an agreement that calls for U.S. troop withdrawal as well as establishes a framework for bilateral cooperation in the years ahead. The accord is "a locking-in of a strategic relationship," a senior U.S. official tells NEWSWEEK. "Without this framework, you could have had the relationship spinning off in different directions." In a joint statement, U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and the top military leader, Gen. Ray Odierno, said: "Taken together these two agreements formalize a strong and equal partnership between the United States and Iraq. They provide the means to secure the significant security gains we have achieved together and to deter future aggression. They establish a framework for cooperation in the fields of defense, political relations, economics, trade, culture, education, the rule of law, health, the environment and science and technology."
The vote came after wrangling that saw a number of concessions on both sides, as well within the Iraqi political structure. The Status of Forces Agreement calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns by the end of next June and to leave altogether by the end of 2011. American troops—there are still nearly 150,000 here—will have immunity from Iraqi prosecution if they commit offenses when they are on duty and on U.S. bases. But they could be tried in Iraqi courts if they commit serious crimes when off duty or off military compounds. U.S. contractors also will be subject to Iraqi jurisdiction in some cases. The agreement also lays out conditions for the handling of detainees by the U.S.
Sunni legislators, meanwhile, won a commitment that allows Iraqis to vote on the accord in a referendum next July--well after the agreement begins. "It will take effect Jan. 1, referendum notwithstanding, so we're good to go," says the senior U.S. official. The Sunnis insisted on the referendum, but they have been among those most eager for the Americans to stay. Dominant during Saddam Hussein's regime, Sunnis remain concerned about possible retribution from the majority Shiites once the Americans leave. Their push for a referendum is seen as less a passion for a national plebiscite than a strong desire to show that they are players in the agreement process and in Iraqi politics.
Followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr opposed the agreement to the end. Despite their efforts at disruption, 149 of the 198 members of Parliament voted in favor of the pact (the chamber has 275 members). The Sadrists chanted "Yes, yes to Iraq" and "No, no to the agreement." They condemned the pact at a press conference after the vote. One parliamentarian dismissed the accord as illegal, saying it was based on legislation that dates back to Saddam Hussein's time. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh was conciliatory, calling the process fair and open. "Democracy gave the right to those opposing the agreement to have their say," he said. But he warned that "any act against the basics of democracy will be dealt with in the legal ways."
The attention of Iraqi politicians should now shift to provincial elections, scheduled to be held by Jan. 31. Iraq's Presidency Council still must give final approval to the agreement, but that body pushed the measure from the start. President Jalal Talabani is Kurdish, and the Kurds of northern Iraq strongly support the agreement and welcome its passage as a precursor to provincial elections and resolution of a number of constitutional issues, notably the status of Kirkuk. Kurds believe the oil-soaked northern city should be part of their largely autonomous Kurdistan Region. Sunnis, whose largest party boycotted elections in December 2004 claiming a vote could not be free and fair, are expected to compete strongly this time around.
Many will now look to see how Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki spends the political capital he gains from the agreement. "Maliki clearly comes out looking like a champion of Iraq's honor and strength," a Western diplomat tells NEWSWEEK. "He negotiated a good deal with the superpower and he got it through." Attention will also turn to Iran, which worked hard to derail an accord. Iraq's powerful eastern neighbor may have lost the battle, but no one expects it to fold. "Iraq has a 1,000-mile border with Iraq and the two countries are co-religionists," says the Western diplomat. That almost guarantees that Tehran will remain in the picture, if not in the way.