Tuesday, December 23, 2008

(F)all out - at the double?

From The Times

December 23, 2008

Britain gets ready for urgent Iraq pullout

Baghdad fails to extend December 31 deadline

Oliver August in Baghdad

British commanders have been forced to plan for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq after the country's parliament failed to vote on a resolution that would allow British troops to stay beyond the end of the year.

The Speaker of the Iraqi parliament suspended moves to approve the resolution after a group of MPs called for his resignation. The resolution failed to pass for a second time on Sunday and its passage after a third reading is now in doubt.

With nine days to go before British troops become an illegal presence in Iraq, sources say that lawyers are working on an alternative that would bypass Parliament and give Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, a free hand. But this, too, needs parliamentary approval and Western officials are concerned that it may not work.

"The Government is trying to get authority to approve the agreement without parliamentary ratification, but if that were so easy then one wonders why they didn’t do it in the first place," a military source said. "It all gets very interesting."

The process is further complicated by the uncertainty over when parliament will resume. No session is scheduled until January 7. If the agreement is not passed before a UN mandate expires on December 31, all non US troops lose their legal status in Iraq. The US struck a deal with the Iraqi Government a month ago, extending its troop presence by three years.

Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the Speaker of the Iraqi parliament, called for a delay yesterday, after a group of MPs demanded his resignation on an unrelated issue. They said that they were boycotting the session until their demands were met.

Mr al-Mashhadani threatened to resign last week after he failed to control a shouting match among MPs over an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoe at President Bush.

The first reading of the Status of Forces Bill failed last Wednesday after the shoe-throwing incident.

Asked what would happen if no agreement were in place by December 31, John Hutton, the Defence Secretary, said: "That would be a very serious situation and obviously we couldn’t let it happen, but I don’t think it will happen. We have contingency plans."

"The safety of our guys out there is our top priority. There will have to be an agreement, a proper agreement, before our guys are out on the streets."

The ethnic slaughter and insurgent violence that began after the 2003 invasion have dropped significantly over recent months although suicide and car bombs remain common. From next year Iraqi police and soldiers will take the lead in security matters.

US combat forces will have to leave Iraqi cities and villages by the end of June and will not be able to conduct operations without Iraqi permission. Most British forces are due to withdraw in May, with the last troops to leave in July.

British commanders will remain part of the US military leadership structure in Baghdad.

The commander of the US led military in Iraq said yesterday that US forces would be deployed to southern Iraq to replace the British troops.

"It is important that we provide some forces to lend oversight in southern Iraq," General Raymond Odierno said, without giving details on the number to be deployed or a timetable.

"Clearly, the Iraqi security forces are playing the major role in security for the area. We want to maintain ongoing training and continuity of communications with the Iraqi security forces to ensure that we can respond to their requests for assistance."



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