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Iraqi Refugees in Syria Watch U.S. Security Negotiations

New America Media, News Report, NAM Correspondent Posted: Nov 21, 2008

Editor's note: Iraqi refugees in Damascus watch developments in their country and in Washington with a mixture of hope and skepticism. NAM's correspondent reports.

While the Iraqi parliament deliberates over the controversial security pact with U.S. forces that was approved by the country's cabinet this week, Iraqis in Damascus are divided over the possibility of U.S. forces remaining in their country for another two years.

Many of the estimated one million Iraqi refugees here say they are eager to return, but they still feel the wounds of the sectarianism that has ripped their country apart in recent years. For refugees here, security in Iraq is a top priority, but many continue to be deeply critical of the ongoing occupation, leaving the community divided on whether security is a legitimate cause for U.S. forces to remain for another two years.

In Seyida Zaynab, the suburb of Damascus often dubbed "little Baghdad" for its largely Iraqi population, the melodic call to prayer reverberates down the dusty streets as I duck into the Sadrist office, the Syrian branch of the movement of mostly poor, anti-occupation Iraqi Shia. Inside, the branchs director Sheikh Raed Al-Qadimi sits in a well-furnished office. On his wall hangs a picture of an elderly Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadrthe revered Shia cleric gunned down in 1999 by people believed to have been agents of Saddam Husseinand his furrow-browed son Muqtada, the leader of the anti-occupation Mehdi Army.

We refuse the agreement completely, says the black robed Al-Qadimi. The security pact is an agreement between two sidesthe Iraqi government and the Americans. Neither side represents the Iraqi people, and no one else has any stake in it. We are an occupied country and the occupying forces must leave.

The security agreement, which is awaiting a final vote from Iraq's parliament, is needed by U.S. forces to legitimize their presence in Iraq after their UN mandate expires at the end of the year. Through nearly one year of negotiations, members of the Iraqi government demanded a number of major changes to the original American draft and at times, threatened to shoot it down. Last month, the Americans threatened major consequences if the Iraqis did not approve the agreement.

The terms of the agreement require U.S. forces to leave by the end of 2011. If passed, it will officially place them under the authority of the Iraqi government, meaning American troops cannot raid Iraqi homes without an order from an Iraqi judge and permission from the government. The pact also requires American forces to leave the streets of Iraqs towns and villages by mid-2009 and requires the U.S. military to hand over their bases to Iraq throughout 2009.

In the months leading up to the cabinets approval of the security pact, the Sadrist movement demanded that the Iraqi government refuse to legitimize a continued U.S. presence in the country, holding regular demonstrations in Sadr City, the enormous mostly Shia suburb of Baghdad. Muqtada al-Sadr has repeatedly threatened to resume attacks on U.S. forces if the pact is approved.

I ask Al-Qadimi what the Sadrist response will be. We are waiting for orders from our leader Muqtada, he says, refusing to elaborate further, and excuses himself to pray.

Down the street, men discuss the security pact in a tea shop as the scent of fire-roasted fish from the Euphrates drifts in from the street. We want the Americans to leave, but not yet, says Dayaa Adib, a former soldier from Baghdad. The Iraqi military has to be strong enough to control the militias before the Americans can leave. If it isnt, Iraq will be broken into pieces.

The Americans will leave Iraq, either by force or by agreement, he says. This way is better. It is peaceful. We are tired of seeing our blood run.

He hands me an open letter distributed by Ayatollah al-Hassani, an Iraqi member of the Shia clergy. In it, there is a message to U.S. president-elect Barack Obama: The elections campaign has ended and now is the time for implementation. We ask the new American president to hold true to his promises and we urge him to end the wretched state of occupation in Iraq.

A few blocks away, a man from Basra, who asked not to be named, speaks in low tones inside a small shop owned by an Iraqi who resells UN food aid.

The agreement is good for Iraq in the short term, he says. But the problem is that the longer the Americans stay, the harder it will be for them to leave.

Like many Iraqis here, he is skeptical that the United States will hold up its end of the deal. America doesnt have any reason to leave. They dont owe anything to the Iraqi people. The incoming American president has made a lot of promises about pulling out of Iraq, but he is only one person. The Americans have interests in Iraq that they wont give up. In the end, the only way the Americans will leave is by force.

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