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Referendum on SOFA could boot U.S. from Iraq in 2010

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 15, 2009

As the U.S. military continues its slow withdrawal from Iraq, the Iraqi people face a decision that might force those efforts into overdrive.

A referendum scheduled for July 30 would give Iraqis the chance to vote for or against the Iraqi-U.S. security agreement that calls for all American troops to leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.

If the referendum goes ahead as scheduled and Iraqi voters reject the agreement — a likely outcome, observers say — the United States would be obliged to pull out troops one year after the vote, or nearly 1½ years before the deadline set by the pact.

Last week, the Iraqi Cabinet approved a $99 million appropriation to stage the vote. But the cabinet also issued a statement suggesting the vote be delayed six months, in part to coincide with Iraq’s January national elections. Any delay in the vote would have to be approved by parliament.

A rejection of the security pact would mean the United States would have to shift its focus primarily to leaving at a tenuous moment in Iraq’s history, said Michael O’Hanlon, a national security expert and author of the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index.

"It’s a big problem if it happens, clearly," O’Hanlon said.

"It means we have to do a fast drawdown just as elections are happening, a new government forming perhaps, and big issues like the north and oil, and ‘Sons of Iraq’ still unresolved — very, very risky."

Asked at a recent press conference what the referendum would mean for the U.S., American Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill demurred.

"Well, look, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to talk about how the Iraqi government and the Iraqi parliament conduct their work. My job and General [Ray] Odierno’s job is to make sure that all of our obligations, all of our obligations in the security agreement — and there are a number of them — that we fulfill them 100 percent," he said.

Military officials with Multi-National Force—Iraq did not respond to a request for an interview by deadline.

While the Iraqi parliament could vote to postpone or cancel the vote, such a move is tricky for politicians in a country where showing independence from the U.S. is often vital for political success.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Stars and Stripes that he does not believe the referendum will go forward July 30, and that anti-Americanism will diminish after June 30, the deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities.

Al-Dabbagh said Iraqi security forces are ready to defend the country, but he does not support speeding up the U.S. withdrawal.

"It might create difficulties," he said.

Still, the Iraqi government is moving ahead with preparations for the referendum.

The concern about the referendum comes as the June 30 deadline approaches for U.S. forces to withdraw from cities, and commanders on the ground remain unsure exactly what their mission will look like afterward. Many of the small outposts in the middle of cities are shutting down, with combat troops being reassigned to larger forward operating bases and a more Iraqi face on day-to-day security operations.

At a meeting between Iraq’s civilian and military leaders in Baghdad on Thursday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was clear in his commitment to the June 30 deadline.

"Foreign forces have to withdraw from the cities totally," al-Maliki said, according to press reports of the meeting. "This is a victory that should be celebrated in feasts and festivals."

In a sign of the need for Iraqi officials to show their independence, a senior American military officer was turned away from the meeting.

"We apologize to you, but this is an Iraqi meeting and you’re not invited," an Iraqi general told the American, according to The New York Times.