THIS IS WHERE I BELONG…The most prominent remaining goal of the Bush administration with respect to its Iraq policy is to secure a long term treaty that would allow for a continued presence of US troops in that country for the foreseeable future and, presumably, tie the hands of the incoming administration (or at least create a heavy presumption in favor of consistency) with respect to such matters.

With an eye on the domestic election calendar (as well as the impending withdrawal of the extra “surge” related troops), the Bush administration has set a deadline of the end of July for the deal to be hammered out. In the meantime, the Bush team has been putting considerable pressure on the Iraqi government to take the necessary steps to forge an acceptable accord. Some of the impetus for its decision to push the Maliki government to woo back the Sunni bloc is to provide the imprimatur of broad-based legitimacy to the treaty, or at least the appearance thereof. There has also been speculation that at least part of the motivation for the recent anti-Sadr operations is to intimidate/weaken Sadr in order to mute his expected opposition to the treaty.

It’s not just Sadr though. The long term treaty is opposed by large segments of the Iraqi population – perhaps majorities – as well as by other prominent political and religious leaders. Fearing this public backlash, the negotiations between the Bush administration and the Maliki government have been conducted largely in secret, without information or updates provided to the Iraqi people, let alone consultation. That might change, however. Iraqi political and religious leaders are beginning to push back, both on the somewhat arbitrary (by Iraqi standards at least) July deadline and against the treaty itself:

An agreement between the United States and Iraq to allow U.S. troops to remain operating in Iraq past 2008 should be put to a popular referendum, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr urged in an online message to his followers.

The message also calls for weekly protests against the agreement, being negotiated by the two governments.

Al-Sadr also called for “an organized media action” and “a unified political and parliamentary movement” to oppose the standards of forces agreement, which would replace the U.N. resolution that allows U.S. troops to operate in Iraq when it expires at the end of the year.

Al-Hayat reports (via Juan Cole), that Sistani is on board with the national referendum idea as well:

Sources close to the office of the Shiite Supreme Exemplar, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, told al-Hayat that he called on…Iraqi prime minister [Maliki] during the latter’s visit to Najaf recently, to deal cautiously with the agreement and called on him to organize a national referendum on it. [emph. added throughout]

Sadr’s vocal opposition and, if true, Sistani’s more subtle objections, may be yielding results. From the same al-Hayat article (via badger):

Sources said Iraq has informed the American delegation of its intention to extend the talks to the end of the year, on account of unfavorable domestic conditions, and [they informed the Americans also of the need for] deep study of the form of the American military presence in Iraq, and of the proposals for ending [that presence] in case it is no longer necessary.

The Bush administration, consistent with its selective dedication to democracy, will staunchly oppose a national referendum on this subject – despite the enormity of the issue to be decided and the long term effects the decision could have on Iraqi society. You see, some purple fingers are prettier than others (just ask the residents of Gaza). Nevertheless, the Bush team wil continue to rationalize its decision to keep 150,000 troops in Iraq on the grounds that these forces are needed to protect the Iraqi people (at least those not located in Fallujah, Sadr City and other targeted areas). Even if the Iraqi people don’t agree. What do they know after all?

Tell me now if you want me to stay. It don’t matter, ’cause I’d stay here anyway.

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