Can Iraq's Parliament Fight Back?

A surprise announcement by Iraq's Cabinet on Monday opened up the possibility that resistance to a prolonged US occupation may come from a much-ignored source: the Iraqi Parliament.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration, moving into the third round of negotiations with the Bush administration over a "status of forces agreement" (SOFA) to establish a long-term US military and economic presence in Iraq, declared that the agreement must be approved by Parliament before it becomes law. Previously, Maliki had maintained that Parliamentary ratification was unnecessary.

Submitting the document to Parliament may not only hold up the process of getting it signed and sealed - it could also change the terms that govern the US presence in Iraq for years to come.

Since Maliki and President Bush released a "Declaration of Principles" in November spelling out their vision of postwar US-Iraqi relations, they've been immersed in closed-door deliberations on the specifics. During a long string of Congressional hearings, including last week's testimony from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the Bush administration has reiterated that it does not plan to consult Congress before signing a SOFA. (It has indicated that it may do so for the other prong of its long-term agreement with Iraq - a nonbinding "strategic framework agreement" governing economic and political ties - but has made no commitment on that front.) Meanwhile, both countries' legislative branches have been vocally challenging their administrations on what they say is a broad overstepping of the bounds of executive power.

On the US side, that resistance has taken the shape of a series of House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings, investigating the constitutionality of an executive-only bilateral agreement that looks, for all intents and purposes, like a treaty - which is supposed to be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate. By calling it an "agreement" instead, the administration skirts that requirement.

On the Iraqi side, Parliamentarians have an even more solid case: the Iraqi Constitution requires legislative ratification of any international agreement.

If the Maliki administration does as it says and submits the SOFA to Parliament, it's sure to meet with roadblocks, according to Catherine Lutz, author of "The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts."

"Opinion within the Parliament is much less US-friendly than in the executive branch," Lutz told Truthout. "Parliament could add amendments and changes to the agreement."

Considering the starkness of the divide between the Maliki administration, which favors a substantial US presence, and the Parliament, which overwhelmingly supports withdrawal, amendments may not cut it. If the draft submitted to Parliament looks anything like previous ones, it will simply die on the floor, according to Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant for the American Friends Service Committee.

"The Iraqi Parliament won't pass any agreement without a clear timetable for withdrawal," Jarrar told Truthout, adding that the Maliki administration has openly stated it would like to retain US troops in Iraq for ten years. "I don't think there's a way to reconcile the two sides."

The probability of easy passage may prove especially slim since, on paper, the agreement looks like a lose-lose situation for the Iraqi people, according to Yale Law professor Oona Hathaway, who has testified at House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings on the subject. The latest versions of the SOFA, pieced together from fragments revealed in hearing testimony, would grant the US the "authority to fight" in Iraq - but they wouldn't promise Iraq protection from foreign enemies, as earlier drafts did.

Dropping the "protection" clause functions as an ostensible concession to the SOFA's US critics, who argued that any pact promising a defense partnership must be dealt with as a treaty and ratified by the Senate. Yet it leaves Iraqis with few reassurances: American troops would not only remain, with few restrictions on their purposes and goals, but they wouldn't be required to come to Iraq's aid in a crisis.

The SOFA's other provisions similarly favor US interests.

"All the agreement includes on its face is promises to grant immunities to US military and private military forces, a permission for US troops to be present in Iraq and an agreement that detainee operations can continue," Hathaway told Truthout. "[Iraqis] might rightly wonder what exactly they are getting in the bargain."

The section granting immunity to military contractors will almost certainly be shot down by Parliament, according to Hathaway.

Back in November, Bush and Maliki set July 2008 as a target to complete negotiations on the agreement. However, their hard-and-fast deadline is December 31, when the United Nations mandate allowing US troops to remain in Iraq expires. Jarrar doubts that a Parliament-approved SOFA could be ready by that date.

"If they actually send it to the Parliament, it will take forever," said Jarrar, pointing to the example of Iraq's contentious "oil law," which has been traveling between Parliament and the Cabinet, in various forms, for a year and a half.

However, according to Jarrar, there's a good chance that Parliament's fiery opposition will prove for naught: Maliki may well rescind his promise to consult the legislature on the agreement. The Iraqi administration's concession came on the heels of "extreme pressure" from Parliamentarians, who have been insisting that he commit to consulting them, according to Jarrar. Yet the administration's word is not quite golden. Last year, Maliki said he'd seek Parliament's approval before agreeing to a renewal of the UN mandate allowing US forces in Iraq, but promptly went back on his promise as the deadline loomed. What's more, the prime minister is certainly not a strict constitutionalist. Last week, he threatened to disenfranchise supporters of Iraqi nationalist leader Moqtada al-Sadr.

Even if Parliament is consulted, some in Iraq are skeptical of whether Parliament can make a difference. Though the legislature enjoys considerable support from the Iraqi people, the administration has the backing of the US - ultimately a more influential force. Iraqi correspondent Ahmed Ali, who lives in Baquba, sees Maliki's concession as merely an attempt to shift the blame for an unpopular agreement to Parliament. He calls Iraq's legislature "impotent."

"Maliki is trying to put the ball in the Parliament's [court]," Ali told Truthout. "He wants history to talk better about him. If Maliki decides for [American troops] staying, all Iraqis will condemn him and his decision."

The Bush administration, meanwhile, remains unwavering in its commitment to sign an executive-only SOFA. Last week, Ambassador Crocker told the House Armed Services Committee that, though the administration would keep Congress "fully informed" of the agreement's content, it would not ask for ratification. David Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, has reiterated a similar sentiment in numerous House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings over the past few months.

It's not likely that Bush will alter his course due to Maliki's supposed change of heart, according to Hathaway, who notes that what happens between the branches of the Iraqi government has no legal effect on US policy.

"The Iraqi process is the Iraqi process and the American process is the American process," she said.

Meanwhile, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are pushing for legislation to mandate that the president send the SOFA to the Senate before it is approved. Another House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the topic is scheduled for late April.


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