AN UPCOMING referendum in Iraq on the pace of U.S. troop withdrawal is likely to be a sticky juncture for the governments of both countries.
The agreement between the United States and Iraq providing for the pullout of American forces required that the plan be submitted to a vote of the Iraqi people before the end of July. That date is rapidly approaching and Iraq has put aside $99 million for carrying out the referendum.
The pact, which took effect early this year, calls for U.S. forces to leave Iraqi cities by June 30 and the entire country by the end of 2011. If it is not approved, the troops would leave Iraq by a year from the date of the vote; that is to say, sometime in July, 2010.
The United States is now pushing for a delay of the vote, while arguing that more time is needed to establish democracy in Iraq. It also claims Iraq still needs to strengthen its security forces to assure stability in the country. After a U.S. occupation of six years, it becomes difficult to imagine how much more time might be needed. The surge itself, considered to have been a turning point in the security situation, took place two years ago.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said this past week that it wants to delay the referendum until January, when national elections will be held. But parliamentary approval would be needed to make the change.
Other Iraqis argue strongly for a rejection of the agreement through the referendum, which would trigger the shorter, one-year timetable. The referendum is a risk for the prime minister, who faces elections in six months and does not want to appear in favor of continued American occupation of his country. Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr strongly supports the shorter timetable.
There is a strong case for the Americans not to tamper with the July referendum. The United States signed on to the date in the first place to seek popular support for a phased end to the occupation. To postpone a democratic vote seven weeks before it is to take place, because it might not serve Washington's interests, would be another in a series of unwise moves that date back to at least 2002.
Let the Iraqis vote. If they want the United States out in 2010 rather than 2011, heaven knows the troops need a rest and the Treasury can use the money.