The Iraqi government is pressing ahead with plans to hold a national referendum on the Iraqi-American security agreement — a measure likely to lose if put to a popular vote with the outcome that American troops could be forced to leave as early as next summer, nearly a year and half ahead of schedule.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is unlikely to publicly back the security accord.
Under the security plan agreed to by the two governments last year, American combat troops must withdraw from the cities by the end of this month and all American troops must be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
Passage of the agreement was contingent on the approval of several other measures, including legislation requiring a referendum on the agreement. If the Iraqi people vote down the security pact, the American military would have to withdraw all troops within a year from the date of the vote, which could be held as soon as this summer.
American diplomats are quietly lobbying the government not to hold the referendum, but so far Iraqi politicians have decided to go ahead with it to avoid appearing to be in the pocket of the Americans in an election year.
On Tuesday, the cabinet approved the appropriation of $99 million for the referendum. Parliament still has to sign off on the spending and pass a law detailing how the referendum would be conducted, but it is expected to do so. There is still some possibility that the referendum could be pushed back, especially if, as often happens, the Iraqi Parliament gets bogged down in crafting the referendum legislation.
Perhaps in deference to American concerns, the cabinet issued a statement on Tuesday saying that it wished to delay the vote for six months so that it could be held at the same time as the national elections in January “in order to save money and time.”
But senior lawmakers appeared to think that a change in the date was unlikely. Under current law, the referendum would be held on July 30. In order to change the date, the cabinet would have to submit a new draft law on the timing of the vote to Parliament, which would then have to move it through the lengthy parliamentary process for considering legislation.
“The date was an essential part of the security agreement,” said Ali Adeeb, a member of the Dawa Party, led by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
The Parliament speaker, Ayad al-Sammaraie, a Sunni lawmaker from the Iraqi Islamic Party, held the same view. “No one can say they don’t want a referendum, it is a law,” Mr. Sammaraie said in a recent interview.
The referendum was the little remarked upon, but potent poison pill approved at the same time as the security agreement as a way to appease political factions that did not want to be tarred with the accusation that they had voted for a measure that allowed American soldiers to stay on Iraqi soil until 2012.
A number of leaders in the security forces, including the Iraqi defense minister, Abdul Khader, have said they want an American presence for at least the next five years. Some political factions have also said privately that they would prefer that the Americans stay, but in an election year, it is difficult for them to make such declarations in public.
“Most Iraqis know very well they need the Americans, but nobody wants to say ‘yes, we want the security agreement,’ ” said Ghassan al-Attiya, director of the Iraq Foundation for Democracy and Development in London.
“This is an election year for Iraq; no one wants to appear that he is appeasing the Americans,” he said. “Anti-Americanism is popular now in Iraq.”
One group that is an unabashed supporter of voting down the agreement is the movement allied with Moktada al-Sadr, the cleric who has been trying to push the American troops out for year. Leading Sadrists in Parliament voted against the security agreement and plan to rally their followers to vote ‘no’ on the referendum, said Saleh al-Obaidi, a spokesman and senior adviser to Mr. Sadr.
The referendum was originally pushed by the Sunni Tawaffuk front because its followers are predominantly anti-American, even though many Sunnis fear that without their presence, they will be vulnerable to abuse and sectarian cleansing by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces.
Mr. Maliki is unlikely to want to speak up in favor of the security agreement for fear that his opponents will use it against him.
One group that will support the agreement is the Kurds, but that, Mr. Attiya said, could diminish the chances of approval because the Arabs are likely to oppose anything the Kurds support.
For the Americans, an earlier than expected withdrawal would derail plans to improve the capacity of Iraqi security forces, reduce sectarianism and ethnic strife in their ranks, and further stabilize the country.
“This will be a very interesting case study of how the new American ambassador will deal with it,” said Mr. Attiya. “It’s a very ticklish issue."