Moment of truth for Shiite party over pact
By HAMZA HENDAWI and QASSIM ABDULZAHRA,Associated Press Writers AP - Wednesday, November 12
BAGHDAD - The fate of an agreement that would keep U.S. troops here for three more years rests with Iraq's largest Shiite party, which must choose between its two main partners: the United States and Iran.
Most lawmakers are waiting for that party, the Supreme Islamic Iraq Council, to take a position on the agreement, which parliament must approve by the end of the year. Only then will smaller groups, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's own Shiite party, commit to the deal or oppose it.
For the moment, all the parties are off the hook. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Monday that the government is still not satisfied and wants more talks on specifics.
But once both the Iraqi and American governments declare a draft final, it will be the moment of truth for the Supreme Council.
It will have to choose between the Shiite-dominated neighbor that nurtured it during Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime and a superpower that helped it spearhead the Shiite rise to power after ousting the dictator in 2003.
Iran bitterly opposes the agreement, fearing it would pave the way to a long-term U.S. presence on its Western border and threaten its national interests.
"We are generally supportive of the agreement," said a Supreme Council lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "But we are in a very tight spot. If we say yes, people will say we are traitors. And if we say no, they will say we are Iranian stooges."
Another Supreme Council lawmaker, also speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said, "It is stupid to make an enemy of America."
"Yes, Iran is a friend and an ally. But the agreement is in the national interest and we will accept it even over Iran's objections," the lawmaker said.
The proposed deal would allow U.S. troops to stay through 2011 after their U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31. It would enshrine a special relationship between the U.S. and a country that under Saddam was considered a bulwark against westward expansion of Iran's influence.
But the Supreme Council cannot afford to sever its ties with Iran. The party needs its neighbor for political support in the power struggle with Sunnis, Kurds and fellow Shiites.
The election of Barack Obama in the U.S. adds another element of uncertainty. Obama has called for withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of his inauguration, about 18 months ahead of the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline.
There have been signs that the Supreme Council may be moving to distance itself from Iran, although a complete break is unlikely to come anytime soon. Most of the steps away from Tehran have been largely symbolic.
"I think that until there is a final deal over power sharing and the future of Iraq, the Supreme Council will keep its ties with Iran," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiite affairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Last year, the party decided to declare Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, its spiritual guide instead of Iran's supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khameini.
Al-Sistani is an Iraq-based Iranian who has major theological differences with the Iranian ruling clergy.
Shiite politicians are looking to al-Sistani for both guidance and political cover. But the cleric, who is close to the Supreme Council, has not taken a clear position on the deal either.
On Friday, senior party official Sadr al-Din al-Qubanji told the weekly prayer worshippers in the holy Shiite city of Najaf that the agreement must be put to a national vote and win the support of the "highest religious leadership" _ meaning al-Sistani.
The uncertainty leaves the Supreme Council wrestling with a decision that could reinforce its position among Shiites _ or destroy it.
The Supreme Council's dilemma reflects the wider divisions within the majority Shiite community. The Shiites gained the most from the U.S.-led invasion, but they know challenging the Iranians over the security agreement carries huge risks.
Three Shiite lawmakers, including one from the Supreme Council, said politicians genuinely feared Iranian retribution, including assassination, if they came out publicly in favor of the agreement.
Iran also could retaliate by closing its border with Iraq, halting trade and denying Iraq the lucrative business of the millions of Iranians who visit Iraq's Shiite religious shrines. Another option would be to halt cooperation with Iraqi authorities on security and development.
For the Supreme Council, the security agreement holds political risks at home, too.
With provincial balloting in January and a general election later in 2009, the Supreme Council is caught between the need to show voters it is not the servant of Iran and the need to avoid a backlash from disaffected Shiites if it signs an agreement to extend what most Iraqis consider foreign military occupation.
"Its most important task is to demonstrate its independence and efficacy to Iraqis at a time when Iraqis increasingly doubt it," Middle East expert Jon Alterman said of the party.
Recommend this article
Average (0 votes)
Sign in to recommend this article »
Most Recommended Stories »
Related Articles: World
French police arrest anarchists for train sabotageAFP - 48 minutes ago
Iraqis reopen major bridge in BaghdadAP - 56 minutes ago
Egypt seeks to delay charges for Sudan's presidentAP - 1 hour 4 minutes ago
AmEx approved to become bank holding companyAP - 1 hour 14 minutes ago
California governor tours superlaser systemAP - 1 hour 35 minutes ago
Most Popular – World
In Obama's victory, Americans see legacy of Lincoln
Britney Spears's son hospitalized: statement
US expands record bailout of insurance giant AIG
AIDS vaccines: New hope for problem-plagued path
MP3 earphones can hamper defibrillators, pacemakers
View Complete List »