BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The next major milestone in the gradual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, a referendum on a bilateral security pact passed last year, is likely to be delayed, politicians said on Thursday.
The referendum was due to take place before the end of July, according to a deal reached in the Iraqi parliament last year that placated Sunni Arab groups opposed to the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement and secured its approval.
The vote would mark the next step toward a full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011 after a partial pullback on Tuesday, when U.S. combat troops left Iraqi cities.
If Iraqis reject the agreement in the popular vote, the 130,000 U.S. soldiers still in the country more than six years after the 2003 invasion will be given just a year to leave.
The government is pushing for the referendum to be delayed until January 2010, when the country also holds a parliamentary election. Holding both at the same time will save money, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government says.
The electoral authorities and lawmakers, meanwhile, say there is no way a referendum can be organized in just a month.
“The problem is one of time because we have not even received the draft bill in parliament from the government yet,” said Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, parliamentary head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Iraq’s largest Shi’ite political party.
“Even if it was on the way to parliament now we would need a month to pass it ... I think it will end up coinciding with the national elections.”
Iraq’s electoral commission, known as IHEC, estimates that holding the referendum would cost $100 million. It has told lawmakers it would need two months to organize the vote.
Omar Al-Mashhadani, a spokesman for parliamentary speaker Ayad al-Samarai, said some politicians feared turnout could be quite low if the referendum were held in isolation, so it made sense to hold the vote alongside the national election.
“The arguments the government presented were realistic and logical, but final decision rests with parliament,” he said.
Even the most dedicated proponents of a referendum concede it is unlikely to be held by the end of July.
Asma al-Moussawi, of the movement loyal to fiercely anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said her group would insist on holding a referendum separately.
“And we think that if the parliament and IHEC work hard and the government provides all the requirements for a referendum, the referendum could be in September,” she said.
One reason some politicians say they are pushing for more time is to see whether the U.S. forces abide by the conditions set in the security pact. Many Iraqis harbor deep suspicions about U.S. intentions after six years of occupation.
“This is sensitive issue and the turnout for the referendum may vary depending on different things,” said Sagheer.
“Many politicians including me prefer to give the referendum more time in order to reveal the truth about U.S. intentions.”
Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Missy Ryan and Elizabeth Fullerton