U.S. troops could be forced by Iraqi voters to withdraw a year ahead of schedule under a referendum the Iraqi government backed Monday, creating a potential complication for American commanders concerned about rising violence in the country's north.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's move appeared to disregard the wishes of the U.S. government, which has quietly lobbied against the plebiscite. American officials fear it could lead to the annulment of an agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay until the end of 2011, and instead force them out by the start of that year.
The Maliki government's announcement came on the day that the top U.S. general in Iraq proposed a plan to deploy troops to disputed areas in the restive north, a clear indication that the military sees a continuing need for U.S. forces even if Iraqis no longer want them here.
Gen. Ray Odierno said American troops would partner with contingents of the Iraqi army and the Kurdish regional government's paramilitary force, marking the first organized effort to pair U.S. forces with the militia, known as the pesh merga. Iraqi army and Kurdish forces nearly came to blows recently, and there is deep-seated animosity between them, owing to a decades-long fight over ancestry, land and oil.
If Iraqi lawmakers sign off on Maliki's initiative to hold a referendum in January on the withdrawal timeline, a majority of voters could annul a standing U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, forcing the military to pull out completely by January 2011 under the terms of a previous law.
It is unclear whether parliament, which is in recess until next month, would approve the referendum. Lawmakers have yet to pass a measure laying the basic ground rules for the Jan. 16 national election, their top legislative priority for the remainder of 2009.
Before signing off on the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement last year, Iraqi lawmakers demanded that voters get to weigh in on the pact in a referendum that was to take place no later than last month. Because it did not happen, American officials assumed the plebiscite was a dead issue.
U.S. officials say they have no way to know how the referendum would turn out, but they worry that many Iraqis are likely to vote against the pact. Maliki billed the withdrawal of U.S. forces from urban areas at the end of June as a "great victory" for Iraqis, and his government has since markedly curbed the authority and mobility of U.S. forces.
Senior Pentagon officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Odierno probably will make an announcement later this week or early next week the accelerating the withdrawal of U.S. forces, which now stand at 130,000, by one or two brigades between now and the end of the year. Each brigade consists of about 5,000 troops. Odierno said Monday that he has not decided whether to speed up the plan, which he said remains on schedule.
The acceleration would still be much slower than if the referendum nullified the agreement.
Still, senior Pentagon officials played down Maliki's announcement, saying it was an expected part of Iraq's political process. Senior Iraqi officials did not raise the possibility of the referendum with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates when he visited the country earlier this month, Pentagon officials said.
Bahaa Hassan, who owns a mobile phone store in Najaf, south of Baghdad, said he would vote for a speedier withdrawal.
"We want to get rid of the American influence in Iraq, because we suffer from it politically and economically," he said. "We will vote against it so Iraq will be in the hands of Iraqis again."
But many Iraqis, particularly Sunnis and Kurds, consider the presence of the U.S. military a key deterrent to abuses of power by the Shiite-led government.
"After six years of Shiite rule and struggle, we still have no electricity, so what will happen if Americans leave?" said Dhirgham Talib, a government employee in Najaf. "The field will be left to the Shiite parties to do whatever they want with no fear from anybody."
A poll commissioned by the U.S. military earlier this year found that Iraqis expressed far less confidence in American troops than in the Iraqi government or any of its security forces. Twenty-seven percent of Iraqis polled said they had confidence in U.S. forces, according to a Pentagon report presented to Congress last month. By contrast, 72 percent expressed confidence in the national government.
Zainab Karim, a Shiite lawmaker from the Sadrist movement, the most ardently anti-American faction, said she was pleasantly surprised that the government is backing the referendum.
"I consider this a good thing," she said. "But we have to wait and see whether the government is honest about this or whether it is electoral propaganda."
As the Iraqi government took steps to force U.S. troops out earlier than planned, Odierno said Monday that he would like to deploy American forces to villages along disputed areas in northern Iraq to defuse tension between Kurdish troops and forces controlled by the Shiite Arab-led government in Baghdad.
"We're working very hard to come up with a security architecture in the disputed territories that would reduce tension," Odierno told reporters. "They just all feel more comfortable if we're there."
Scores of Iraqis have been killed in recent weeks in villages along the 300-mile frontier south of the Kurdish region. U.S. military officials say the attacks bear the hallmarks of Sunni extremists, but local leaders have traded accusations to bolster their positions on whether specific areas should be under the control of Baghdad or the autonomous government of Kurdistan.
The pesh merga currently controls some villages that are nominally outside the three-province Kurdish region. The expansion of Kurdish influence in northern Iraq has prompted Maliki to deploy more troops loyal to Baghdad to northern provinces south of Kurdistan. The new provincial leadership in Nineveh province, the most restive among them, has made curbing Kurdish expansion its top priority and has called for the expulsion of pesh merga forces.
The tension, Odierno said, has created a security vacuum that has emboldened al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group that he said was almost certainly responsible for recent sensational bombings in the province. The number of civilian casualties in Iraq has increased since the urban pullout, Odierno said, largely as a result of attacks in the disputed territories.
"What we have is al-Qaeda exploiting this fissure between the Arabs and the Kurds," he said. "What we're trying to do is close that fissure."