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Chris Hill vs. the Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement Referendum

Alissa J. Rubin has a great story in The New York Times today about a crucial issue in Iraq (which some wags are starting to call the “Forgotten War”): an upcoming referendum that, if passed, would compel the United States to withdraw its troops from Iraq within a year, well ahead of the end-of-2011 timetable specified in the Status of Forces Agreement. There’s been a cumbersome and confusing series of bureaucratic, political and legislative hangups over the referendum, as Rubin explains, casting doubt on whether it would be held at all. And the United States really wants the referendum to be scrapped, delayed or defeated: one of the arguments made in court last month by Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, to keep the torture photos out of the public view was that their release could compel Iraqis to pass the referendum and kick the United States out ahead of 2011. But Rubin reports that anti-American sentiment ahead of this year’s national elections is compelling parliament to move ahead with the referendum, scheduled for July 30, and yesterday the cabinet authorized $9 million for it.

The cabinet suggested that the referendum could be delayed until January, but the parliament speaker, Ayad al-Summarie, an opponent of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, appears to be leaning in the direction of holding it by July 30.

Welcome to Christopher Hill’s first massive challenge as Iraq ambassador. He can continue to press behind the scenes for the Maliki government and the parliament to block or delay the referendum, contending that a premature U.S. departure is a gamble that Iraq can’t afford. But if he does that, the inevitable charges about American intentions for permanent occupation will intensify in an election year, risking not only the passage of the referendum but a more anti-American parliament as well. If he doesn’t press Maliki and the parliament, the referendum could pass. Would that be the end of the world? No, but it could make the actual withdrawal more chaotic. What’s striking is that for months, administration officials I’ve spoken with about Iraq have been convinced the referendum wasn’t going to happen.

On a kind-of-related note, Musings On Iraq has a good post noting that the Iraqis asked the British to keep 100 sailors and 5 ships in Basra *after *the “final” British pull-out date of May 31. Is this what’s going to happen for U.S. troops, as John Nagl kind-of-sort-of-maybe suggests in his new Iraq paper? If the referendum passes and U.S. troops have to leave Iraq in 2010, expect the Obama administration, ironically, to negotiate a more robust advisory presence than it would if the referendum fails, out of an attempt to mitigate the consequences of what it’ll view as an accelerated withdrawal schedule.

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