CNN reports on today’s protest in Iraq against the SOFA agreement proposed by Prime Minister Maliki :
Iraqis outraged by a proposed security pact between Iraq and the United States staged an angry but peaceful protest against the deal Friday.
Thousands of people — most of whom are backers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — streamed into Baghdad’s Firdous Square waving Iraqi flags, hoisting posters with portraits of the cleric and carrying signs scorning the agreement.
Protesters at one point set fire to U.S. flags and an effigy of President Bush, but the rally was well-organized and peaceful with no evidence of fighting or arrests. People dispersed amicably after the 2½-hour event.
Think about that. In a country ruled by violence both before and after the U.S. invasion, a political faction held a massive demonstration in the capital against a key policy of the government… and then everyone went home peacefully. Of course, that situation is by no means guaranteed to last, as the New York Times hints today in its coverage of the legislative debate over the agreement:
When cornered on the stairways and balconies of the Iraqi Parliament building in the Green Zone, many of those who are threatening to vote against ratification openly admit that they approve of its terms.
“To be clear, it is not the treaty that is the problem,” said Aala Maki, a senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni party that has suggested it might not vote for approval. “What will be built on the treaty, that is the problem.”
Other than the followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who reject any agreement in principle (and who continue to bang their hands on their desks in Parliament when it is being discussed), most lawmakers consider the pact at least satisfactory, if not ideal.
But the Sunnis, and others, are worried that the agreement will leave too much power to Mr. Maliki’s government, given that only two years ago elements of the government-run Iraqi police force were functionally little more than Shiite death squads.
The major Sunni parties, after several days of mixed messages, have largely come together and demanded a series of guarantees from the government and the Americans in return for their support. . . .
. . . Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker, said members of the Kurdish coalition were privately mulling whether to draw up their own list of demands.
“Everybody is afraid of Maliki,” Mr. Othman said. “Nobody is afraid of the agreement.”
Truth be told, this is the Sadrists’ real objection, too — since part of Maliki’s strongman ambitions is using the remaining U.S. presence to wear down their ability to oppose him (just as he’s done for the past year), even an orderly, gradual withdrawal is unsatisfactory to the Sadrists. Thus they are forced to insist that a SOFA with a hard withdrawal deadline is in fact a puppet’s capitulation, that Obama is every bit the imperialist Bush/Cheney were, and so on.
For the moment, though, the debate is taking place in the political realm rather than on the streets, and that has to count as progress. If Maliki has the sense and capacity to cut political deals with the Sunnis and Kurds to ensure broad support for the pact rather than steamroll it through by a narrow majority, that would be even more encouraging (though still transient). We’ll know more on Monday, when the agreement is due to be voted on.
(Cross-posted at Firedoglake.)
Update: Did I say Monday? Make that Wednesday or Thursday:
The speaker of Parliament, Mahmoud Mashhadani, said Saturday that he would call for a ratification vote as soon as the different blocs came to some kind of agreement, which he urged them to do by Wednesday or Thursday.
A press officer for Mr. Mashhadani said the speaker’s emphasis on arriving at an accord before the vote was directly related to recent statements by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric, who has insisted that any agreement achieve national consensus.
Supporters of the pact, largely consisting of members of the United Iraqi Alliance, a Shiite bloc, and their Kurdish allies, appear to have enough votes for a majority, but they have grown frustrated in their attempts to persuade others to support the agreement. They said they believed that the ayatollah’s approval of the pact, which is considered critical, is contingent on more than token Sunni support.
. . . Late on Friday, Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, and Mr. Mashhadani invited members of Sunni parliamentary blocs to Mr. Talabani’s Baghdad home for discussions.
Some Sunni parliamentarians have asked that an appendix be added to the pact outlining their proposed guarantees. Since such an appendix is unlikely to be approved by the Americans, the Kurds countered with the idea of a treaty among Iraqi political blocs to ensure that the Sunnis’ demands are met after the pact is signed, said Abdul Khaliq Zangana, a Kurdish legislator who was at the meeting on Friday.
Will the Sunnis let themselves be fooled again persuaded to accept vague promises that Team Shiite has no intentions of keeping, or will they be able to pry some genuine concessions out of Maliki? Stay tuned.