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Sunni legislators weigh in with demands

The lawmakers seek to trade their support of the pact on U.S. troops for political reforms and prisoner amnesty.

November 26, 2008|Tina Susman and Saif Hameed | Susman and Hameed are Times staff writers.

BAGHDAD — Sunni Arab lawmakers on Tuesday listed a host of demands, varying from sweeping political reforms to amnesty for prisoners, in exchange for supporting a pact to keep U.S. forces in Iraq through 2011, dimming Iraqi leaders' hopes for a smooth victory when parliament votes on the measure.

The 275-member legislature was expected to vote today on the Status of Forces Agreement. The pact would alter the conditions under which the roughly 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq operate.

Proponents, led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, say the accord would put Iraq on the road to sovereignty by scaling back U.S. troops' autonomy beginning next year and by setting a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for a full troop withdrawal. Opponents, led by Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, say it doesn't get rid of the U.S. forces soon enough and leaves loopholes for the Americans to do as they please.

The main Sunni bloc, Tawafiq, holds 44 seats in the parliament and falls somewhere in the middle. It does not oppose the pact, which took nearly nine months to negotiate, but says it cannot back it without changes.

Maliki's Shiite bloc and its Kurdish allies hold enough seats to propel the pact through parliament, but Maliki needs Sunni votes to prevent sharpening the country's sectarian and ethnic divides. In addition, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has said the pact should have national consensus. Sistani stays out of politics, but his approval of such important legislation is considered crucial because of the weight his words carry.

Rashid Azzawi, a parliament member with the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the Tawafiq parties, said members of the bloc would boycott today's session if they did not receive promises that their demands would be met.

"The most important demand is the political process reform. We have demanded the Iraqi government not allow any side to monopolize decision-making," he said, reflecting Sunni fear of being marginalized in the parliament by the majority Shiites and the Kurds.

Azzawi also said Sunni lawmakers wanted amnesty for detainees in U.S. custody, who number about 16,000 and are overwhelmingly Sunni. In addition, he said, Tawafiq wanted a national referendum on the pact, even if the parliament passed it. If the public voted against the pact, he said, the Iraqi government would be obliged to cancel it.

The demands were also spelled out on Tawafiq's website.

Despite the scope of the demands, legislators with the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite bloc loyal to Maliki, were optimistic that the Sunnis could be satisfied and the pact would pass. Ridha Jawad Taqi, a Shiite lawmaker, suggested that at least some of the issues could be handled in a resolution that would commit the government to taking the action sought by Tawafiq. Even the demand for the referendum should be easy to manage if an article is simply added to the pact before the parliament vote, Taqi said.

"Everything is subject to deliberations," he said. "Talks are ongoing, and I think we can reach something positive tomorrow."

In addition to the Sunni bloc's concerns, lawmakers loyal to Sadr, who number about 30, are known to oppose the pact. A number of small parties have not made it clear which way they will go. The deal needs 138 votes to pass, but passage by a thin margin would highlight a failure to achieve the consensus Maliki seeks.

The parliament vote will be by a show of hands, putting lawmakers who say one thing publicly but lean in another direction in a difficult position. Many Sunnis, for example, want to present themselves publicly as staunch nationalists unwilling to accept foreign forces on Iraqi soil. But privately, they might fear the outcome if U.S. forces departed and left the Shiite-dominated government -- which rose to power after the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led dictatorship -- fully in charge.

All the lawmakers are concerned about how their vote might affect their parties' chances in provincial elections, which are scheduled for Jan. 31.

As the vote on the pact neared, Iraqi leaders waged a fierce campaign to persuade opponents to change their minds, or to win over the undecided. At a news conference Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih repeated the government argument that Iraq's security and sovereignty depended on the pact.

"The alternatives are very dangerous for the future of Iraq as it heads for an unknown destiny," said Salih, arguing that it was better to have a plan for the future than none at all. "This agreement forms a clear road map for the withdrawal of the American forces from Iraq, and complete sovereignty."

If the pact is not passed by the end of next month, it would leave U.S. forces without legal standing to be in Iraq unless the U.N. mandate authorizing their presence was extended. The mandate expires Jan. 1.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.

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