Fate of British troops in Iraq in doubt after vote derailed
AFP - Tuesday, December 23
BAGHDAD (AFP) - - The fate of British forces in Iraq was hanging in the balance on Monday after parliament delayed a crucial vote to give the troops a legal basis to remain after a UN mandate expires in 10 days' time.
The issue has been derailed by calls by MPs for speaker Mahmud Mashhadani to be sacked, triggering an unprecedented parliamentary crisis after he described some lawmakers as "sons of dogs" during a rowdy session last week.
"There will be no debate on the status of the non-US troops until the issue of Mashhadani is solved," said Sheikh Jamal al-Butikh, who heads the Iraqi National List in the 275-seat assembly.
He said parliament was adjourned until Tuesday, when lawmakers would instead focus on the future of Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab known for his fiery rhetoric against US-led forces as well as fellow MPs.
"The crisis is at its peak as the majority of MPs want to see Mashhadani sacked after he insulted them last week," said Butikh.
Parliament had due to vote on Monday on a resolution that would mandate the government to sign bilateral deals with the countries that still have troops on Iraqi soil, mainly Britain.
Without parliament approving such a resolution, the presence of non-US foreign troops in Iraq will be illegal when the UN mandate expires on December 31 -- and it is not known when lawmakers might now vote on the issue.
"Another meeting will be held either tomorrow or another day to discuss the withdrawal of non-US forces," spokesman for the Sunni Concord Front, Salim Abdallah, told AFP.
The United States, which supplies 95 percent of foreign troops in Iraq, has already reached a landmark security deal with Baghdad under which its combat forces can remain until the end of 2011.
But the session swiftly turned to Mashhadani after 54 MPs signed a petition calling for the dismissal of a man who was once sentenced to death under Saddam Hussein.
Most of the signatories belong to the two main parliamentary blocs, the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Alliance, and some independents.
On Wednesday, the first reading of a bill on the non-US forces took place amid uproar in the aftermath of the protest by an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at visiting US President George W. Bush earlier this month.
Mashhadani lost his temper, branding some MPs as "sons of dogs". He announced his resignation, but later retracted it.
He was in equally feisty mood on Monday.
"It is not you who decide my fate in Baghdad. Go back to Arbil," Mashhadani angrily told a Kurdish MP, according to one parliamentary source.
During a surprise visit to Iraq last week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that his country's troops would wrap up their mission by the end of May and later said that all but 400 would be out by the end of July.
There currently 4,100 British troops in Iraq concentrated around Basra airport in the south.
Asked what would happen if no agreement was in place by December 31, British Defence Secretary John Hutton said on Sunday: "That would be a very serious situation and obviously we couldn't let it happen, but I don't think it will happen.
"We have contingency plans."
Brown's predecessor Tony Blair was widely criticised for his decision to join the United States in the March 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, who was executed in December 2006 for crimes against humanity.
A total of 178 British soldiers have died in Iraq since the invasion, 136 of them as a result of hostile action.
Meanwhile, the commander of the US-led military in Iraq said that US forces will be deployed to southern Iraq to replace the departing British troops.
"It is important that we provide some forces to lend oversight in southern Iraq," General Ray Odierno told AFP, without giving further details.
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Iraqi parliamentarians a sesson of parliament in Baghdad's secure Green Zone in September. The Iraqi parliament has delayed a vote on a resolution authorising the government to reach a deal on the presence of British and other non-US foreign troops after December 31, a senior MP has said.
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