Sadiq al-Rikabi, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's senior political adviser, told Middle East Progress during his visit to Washington last week that he did not see the need for the referendum on the Status of Forces Agreement:
I think that, considering the American president’s speech about the U.S. commitment for responsible withdrawal, we do not feel a referendum is necessary. The decision will need to be taken in parliament, as the referendum is currently enshrined in law, and so if it is to be cancelled, we need a new law to say so. But even if the referendum is held on its assigned date, I’m not worried at all about the approval of the SOFA.
I've been hearing rumors about the possible cancelation of the SOFA referendum for a few weeks now, but this is to the best of my knowledge the first public statement of its kind by a major Iraqi official. If the referendum is indeed scrapped, it would be a major development. The risk that the referendum on the SOFA currently legally required by the end of July would fail, requiring the U.S. to withdraw its troops in twelve months, has been an important factor shaping the American approach to the new rules of engagement.
The Iraqi Prime Minister's office seems to think that Obama's public commitment to withdrawal has eliminated the need for such a referendum (which was arguably primarily a hedge against McCain attempting to ignore or circumvent the agreement). It wouldn't surprise me at all if the U.S. and Maliki would both like to see the referendum quietly dropped. Neither really wanted it to begin with. For the U.S., it complicates strategic planning, while it was forced on Maliki by the Iraqi Parliament as the price of ratification. It isn't currently a major issue in the press or for leading political forces, and preparation for a referendum which is supposedly only four months away (but lacks rules or even a set question) doesn't seem to have begun.
Just because the Prime Minister's Office or the U.S. would like to avoid the referendum doesn't mean that it won't happen, though. It is currently a legal requirement, and canceling it would require new legislation -- which would offer an opportunity for ambitious Iraqi politicians to mobilize public support against Maliki and against the United States ahead of the scheduled national Parliamentary elections. On the other hand, holding the referendum would also require new legislation to determine its rules and procedures. Either way, the Iraqi Parliament is currently even more stalemated than usual over the selection of a new Speaker.
The fate of the referendum is not the same as the fate of the SOFA, of course, which remains binding on the U.S. and will continue to govern the changing American role in Iraq. Indeed, not holding a vote would only solidify the strategic planning on both sides for the U.S. drawdown of forces since it would remove the uncertainties surrounding the referendum. It will be interesting to see if Rikabi's comments set off any public controversy in Iraq -- I haven't seen them reported in the Iraqi press as of yet -- and to follow the contours of that controversy for insight into where the SOFA referendum and the future of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship may be going.