Kirkuk (AsiaNews) - Speaking of a broad consensus over the approval of the plan to withdraw U.S. troops "is not correct." The president had asked for a large majority, but those who did not agree with the proposed law "preferred to avoid the session by going on pilgrimage to Mecca," leaving to their fellow lawmakers "the task of voting." These are some of the comments made to AsiaNews by Louis Sako, archbishop of Kirkuk, over the plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
Yesterday, the Iraqi parliament approved, by a vote of 148 in favor out of 198 lawmakers present - there were 35 votes against, and 86 lawmakers absent - the Status of Forces Agreement: it stipulates that the U.S. forces in Iraq - composed of 150,000 soldiers - would have to withdraw to the cities by June of 2009, remaining available for possible emergency operations. Their definitive departure is set for the end of 2011. Now the law must be ratified by the Iraqi presidency council, made up of head of state Jalal Talabani (Kurdish) and vice-presidents Tareq Al Hashemi (Sunni) and Adel Abdul-Mahdi (Shiite). The Iraqi citizens will have the last word on the measure, through a popular referendum - clamored for by the Sunni minority, in exchange for their vote in parliament - expected to be held by the end of July 2009.
"The vote represents a step forward," says Archbishop Sako, "but anything can happen, because the situation is still precarious. There is nothing stable or definitive, the country is going through a phase of fragile equilibrium that could collapse at any moment." The parliamentary session that approved the measure was anything but tranquil, with the radical Shiite fringe repeatedly chanting protest slogans against "the American occupation." The leader Muqtada al-Sadr is against the agreement, and has told his followers to display black banners as a sign of mourning, and to close the offices of the movement all over the country for the next three days. But there is partial satisfaction among the Sunnis, who have seen some of their requests for "political reforms" recognized; these include the revision of the law that prevents former members of the Baath party of rais Saddam Hussein from holding office in the country.
"Iraqis still profoundly divided within itself," emphasizes the archbishop of Kirkuk. "One cannot speak of national unity, and even the government recognizes this. Everyone is trying to gain greater influence in his own territory, and even the capital, Baghdad, which should represent the symbol of unity, is in reality subdivided into sectors controlled by very specific factions."
Planning the withdrawal of American troops could be positive for the country's journey toward autonomy, but there remains the concrete risk of "a civil war if the nation is left to itself." Archbishop Sako emphasizes two other essential points: the foreign policy stance that Barack Obama intends to take, and the Iranian nuclear threat. "It is not possible to predict what initiatives the new American president will take, but his decisions will have a fundamental effect on future developments in the entire region. The Iranian nuclear menace," the prelate concludes, "is a concrete threat for Iraq and for all the countries of the Gulf. The Middle East is hanging in the balance, and there is a long way to go on the journey of peace."