The only way the Maliki government managed to get the Iraqi Parliament’s narrow approval for the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that gave the US a legal basis to remain in the country beyond January 1 of this year was to promise a referendum, to be held no later than July 30 of this year.
That date is rapidly approaching and parliament has set aside the money to fund the vote. Maliki’s cabinet has sought to delay the pact, but has been rebuffed by parliament. It seems then that by the end of the month, a vote could be held which would hand the legality of the continued US military presence over to the Iraqi voting public.
The SOFA requires a year of advanced notice to cancel, so even if the vote fails the US would have until 2010 to complete its withdrawal of 131,000 troops from the nation. There has been no publicly released polling data on the likelihood of the referendum to pass, but a failure would at the very least seriously inconvenience President Obama’s desire to keep 50,000 troops in the nation “indefinitely.”
The Iraqis are fresh off of a national holiday celebrating US withdrawal from their cities, but June was also an exceedingly violent month, and US officials have been extremely dismissive of concerns about the massive death toll. While US troops having shifted to the outskirts of cities may somewhat relieve opposition to their presence, the prospect of well over 100,000 foreign troops remaining well into 2010 might not sit well with some.
In fact, the Obama Administration’s controversial decision to block the release of detainee abuse photos was at least in part influenced by the prospect of anti-US sentiment affecting the referendum. The US seems to be going out of its way not to make public contingency plans for a faster pullout, but very soon they could be left with a stark choice between leaving and admitting once and for all that the Iraqi people never had any real control over the presence of the occupation force.