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Debate on Iraqi pact ends in scuffles

A heated parliamentary debate on the U.S.-Iraq security treaty was called to an early close Wednesday after lawmakers from opposing sides scuffled.
Iraq Security Pact
An Iraqi man kisses a poster depicting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a demonstration Wednesday in Basra in support of a U.S.-Iraqi security pact.Nabil Al-jurani / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A heated parliamentary debate on the U.S.-Iraq security treaty was called to an early close Wednesday as lawmakers loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr scuffled with security guards for the foreign minister and the speaker of the legislature and his two deputies.

The session was chaotic from the start, with lawmakers shouting at each other. Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani added to the din by repeatedly yelling at legislators to sit down or keep quiet, but failed to restore order.

The turmoil followed the announcement by two small political factions that they would join al-Sadr's supporters in opposing the security pact, which would allow American forces to stay in Iraq for three more years.

The deal is backed by the governing coalition, which holds a majority in parliament, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is campaigning for help from other blocs in hopes of passing the measure with broader support in a vote by legislators Monday.

The Shiite Fadhila party, which has 15 seats in parliament, said it would vote against the agreement. Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of a small Sunni Arab bloc with 11 seats, said a U.N. mandate under which U.S. forces are in Iraq should be renewed for six months when it expires Dec. 31 so the government could negotiate a new pact.

Out of order
Sadrist legislators tried to shout down a lawmaker from the ruling Shiite coalition who was reading the treaty's text to the chamber.

When the lawmaker, Hassan al-Sineid, kept reading, Sadrist lawmaker Ahmed al-Massoudi aggressively approached the bench. He appeared to be on the verge of grabbing the document from al-Sineid, seated next to Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, when security guards intervened.

Scuffling erupted and then escalated when other Sadrist legislators rushed to help their colleague, prompting the speaker to hurriedly declare the session adjourned until Thursday.

The Sadrists later claimed that al-Massoudi was punched in the face by one of Zebari's guards.

The pact already was approved by al-Maliki's Cabinet, boosting its chances for passage when parliament votes, because the main parties in the governing coalition dominate the body.

But the vocal opposition points to a possibly narrow victory for the government in the vote, which would cast a shadow on the legitimacy of a deal that al-Maliki has said should be approved with a broad consensus. Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the deal would be acceptable only if approved by a wide margin in parliament.

Voices of dissent
If the measure passes the legislature, it will go to the president and his two deputies for ratification. Each one — President Jalal Talabani and vice presidents Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Tariq al-Hashemi — has the power to veto the agreement.

Shiite coalition parties, which have 85 seats, and the Kurdish bloc, with 54, firmly support the pact, and their votes alone amount to a thin majority. They might also pick up support from smaller parties. However, the position of their Sunni Arab allies, the three-party Iraqi Accordance Front, is less certain and many of those 44 lawmakers might not back the deal.

Lawmakers from Fadhila and al-Mutlaq's group, along with 30 or so seats from al-Sadr's group, amount to 56 dissenting votes.

Some Sunni leaders say the agreement should be put to a vote in a national referendum. Others fault the document for not offering a power-sharing formula that would ensure the full participation of the once-dominant Sunni minority in governing the country.

A modest show of popular support for the agreement was on display Wednesday, when several hundred people staged demonstrations in support of the pact in the mainly Shiite southern cities of Basra, Karbala and Najaf.

Timetable for departure
Under the agreement, which reflects an improving security climate, U.S. troops would withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of next June and from the entire country by Jan. 1, 2012. It would give the Iraqis almost complete control over their operations and movements but limited judicial jurisdiction in the case of serious crimes committed by U.S. soldiers when off-base and off-duty.

The agreement also would bar the Americans from using Iraqi territory to attack neighboring nations.

The United States defended the agreement Wednesday, with Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell saying the document provided the time and authority needed for American troops to train Iraqi forces and go after terrorists.

Morrell spoke as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headed to Capitol Hill to explain and defend the agreement to Congress.

In a nationally televised address Tuesday, al-Maliki also defended the treaty, saying it was a prelude to the restoration of full Iraqi sovereignty by 2012. He said the alternative would be renewing the U.N. mandate, whose terms he said compromise Iraq's sovereignty, or leaving Iraq's nascent security forces to fight alone after that mandate expires Dec. 31.

Protest planned
Sadrist lawmakers appeared to hope to derail the pact by trying to tangle up parliament and preventing a vote as the session nears its end for the year.

The assembly is scheduled to recess late this month or early December for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. Dozens of lawmakers will then travel to Saudi Arabia for Muslims' annual pilgrimage to Mecca, denying parliament a quorum to debate or vote on the pact.

Al-Sadr has a long history of conflict with the United States, launching several uprisings against U.S. forces since they occupied Iraq in 2003. He threatened this month to resume attacks on U.S. forces if they don't immediately begin to withdraw from Iraq.

He called for a mass prayer Friday at a central Baghdad square to protest the agreement.