WASHINGTON – The Iraqi parliament has its date with destiny this Wednesday, after dozens of its 375 members nearly came to blows debating the proposed US-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). And that’s not counting an even higher percentage that’s not familiar with the final text because they simply had no time to digest it. It’s literally a take it or leave it, do or die affair; parliament goes into recess immediately after the vote.

At the finish line, it’s still unclear how all 56 Sunni MPs will vote. Critics inside and outside Iraq are already spinning the pact as a joint Shi’ite-Kurdish conspiracy (the 83-member United Iraqi Alliance plus the 53-member Kurdistan Alliance, both pro-pact on the grounds it’s the lesser of all evils because at least it sets a timetable for US withdrawal).

Although they have been joined by the Fadhila party and the Sunni fundamentalist Iraqi Accord Front, the Sadrists still don’t have enough votes to block the pact; according to London-based al-Hayat newspaper, for the moment there are 106 votes against the pact. They need 138.

The Kurdish Alliance – in favor of the pact – at least had the decency to denounce the startling lack of transparency of the whole process. But as far as the Kurds are concerned, this is a minor detail; what really matters is Kurdish independence. On a parallel level, Kurds are wary of a new ploy by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki – the creation of “tribal Support Councils.” The Kurds view these as Maliki’s militias. As if Kurdish Peshmerga militias were not conducting their own slo-mo ethnic cleansing around the city of Mosul.

When in doubt, become a pilgrim

Then there’s the unpredictable “pilgrim to Mecca” angle. MPs from all political persuasions – as much moved by religious duty as by concocting a convenient escape route, not to mention dodging the odd death threat – have been leaving on a pilgrimage to Mecca since Sunday.

So that leaves the possibility of the pact being approved by a slim majority and/or overwhelmingly rejected by Sunnis – a certified public relations disaster and far from the “national consensus” Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has stressed would be essential to guarantee his support. (Sistani by the way blasted all Mecca-bound MPS as unpatriotic.)

For the sinister Hadi al-Amiri, leader of the Iranian-trained Badr Corps, the paramilitary arm of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, huge demonstrations like last Friday’s in Baghdad, organized by the Sadrists, simply don’t matter. The mass demonstration in Firdous Square – where US Marines staged for the cameras the “decapitation” of Saddam Hussein’s statue in 2003 – was particularly pregnant with meaning: a George W Bush effigy was burned at the same spot. Sadrists and an overwhelming majority of Sunnis see the pact as essentially an early 20th century-style neo-colonial treaty.

Maliki’s government is heavily betting on the pact being approved by a simple majority. There’s fierce dispute also on this point – according to the Iraqi constitution, it should be a two-thirds majority (not unexpectedly, the Bush administration has already declared it will violate Article II, Section 2 of the US constitution, claiming that no Senate approval of the pact is necessary. An emasculated US Congress has responded with thunderous silence).

Just in case a frantic Maliki keeps threatening that in case of defeat, “extending the presence of the international forces on Iraqi soil will not be our alternative.” Maliki goes for the jugular; if the pact is not approved, US forces will be constrained to an “immediate withdrawal from Iraq.” Not surprisingly, the US State Department is on the same wavelength. Plus, of course, the Pentagon – which in a surreal twist has been threatening to evacuate 150,000 troops from Iraq in a flash in case the pact is knocked out; this when the Pentagon had been insisting non-stop that withdrawing within president-elect Barack Obama-proposed 16 months is unrealistic.

If the latest version of the pact is to be believed, Blackwater mercenaries – not to mention the full, 163,000-strong, Pentagon-employed private contractor army in Iraq – will finally be subjected to Iraqi law. As an overwhelming majority of Iraqi MPs has not even read the final version of the pact, many are not exactly aware of the definitive terms. As for jurisdiction for crimes committed by US forces in Iraq, many for instance don’t know that if a US soldier kills an Iraqi civilian while not on duty, prosecutors would have to prove intent beyond reasonable doubt. Were the soldier to claim self-defense, he would be tried under US jurisdiction.

MPs also may not be aware that Washington will continue to control at least US$10 billion of assets seized from Iraq under Saddam as well as proceeds from the export of Iraqi oil held into a “Special Purpose Account” on behalf of the Treasury at the Federal Reserve of New York; that’s one third of Iraq’s total reserves of foreign currency and gold (a weapon deftly deployed by the Bush administration to force the approval of the pact).

Others may be extremely alarmed that Abdul Qadir al-Obaidi, Iraq’s pro-American defense minister, has more or less implied there’s the possibility “some Americans might be needed after” the end of the 2011 deadline for the end of the occupation. Undisguised loopholes in fact allow the Pentagon to stay in Iraq – and keep its cherished military bases – way beyond the 2011 deadline.

Professor Michael Schwartz, author of War without End: The Iraq War in Context, argues that “the language from the previous draft permitting the Iraqi government to ask the US to stay has been removed. The specific language was: ‘based on the Iraqi assessment of conditions, the Iraqi government is remitted to ask the US government to keep specific forces for the purposes of training and support of Iraqi security forces’. I cannot find language that would allow any extension of US presence, either as trainers or on bases. Clearly, the US does not intend to honor this promise, but I am astonished that they took this language out.”

As for Article 4, it states that the US military machine should be in the country “for the purposes of supporting Iraq in its efforts to maintain security and stability in Iraq.” Obviously, the Bush administration’s ghost writers never considered the fact that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want the occupiers out, and consider the occupation as the prime vector of violence and carnage across the country.

The pact also states that both Iraq and the US “retain the right to legitimate self defense within Iraq, as defined in applicable international law.” With the Pentagon interpreting “legitimate” self-defense according to the Bush Doctrine, not to mention its stellar record stretching the meaning of “international law,” one can imagine the incendiary consequences. Perhaps all Iraqis need to know about this SOFA is that the Pentagon and Bush are very comfortable with it.


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