Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, shown last week, tried to explain the new treaty to angry lawmakers Wednesday before a fight between bodyguards and a lawmaker broke out.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, shown last week, tried to explain the new treaty to angry lawmakers Wednesday before a fight between bodyguards and a lawmaker broke out. Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images
A fistfight broke out in Iraq's parliament on Wednesday, when lawmakers were supposed to be debating whether to ratify a new security pact with the United States — one that calls for the withdrawal of all American forces by the end of 2011.
It took U.S. and Iraqi government officials nearly a year of negotiations to make the agreement, but Iraqi lawmakers have been given only a week to consider it.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari tried to explain the new treaty to angry lawmakers Wednesday.
Normally, journalists are not allowed into the parliament assembly hall. Instead, they watch the proceedings from a nearby room via video feed, which is broadcast with a delay of several minutes.
The last thing viewers saw Wednesday was a lawmaker from Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's faction denouncing the agreement. Sadr has opposed the security pact almost from the beginning. As his supporter addressed parliament, the audio and video feed abruptly dropped out, and seconds later, state TV resumed regular programming with an unrelated news broadcast.
Meanwhile, off-camera, uniformed Iraqi guards raced through the parliament building, locking doors and barring lawmakers and journalists from leaving. Rumors quickly spread that a fight had broken out inside the assembly hall.
"There was a bit of a fistfight in between this one, Massoudi, and some of the guards of Mashhadani who tried to take him out," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker. Ahmad al-Massoudi is a lawmaker from Sadr's faction, and Mahmoud al-Mashhadani is the parliament speaker.
Falah Hassan Shenshel, another Sadrist lawmaker, emerged from the assembly hall, his face dripping with sweat. Shenshel said bodyguards accompanying the foreign minister, Zebari, beat his colleague.
Other eyewitnesses say the guards used force after the opposition lawmaker approached the podium and tried to rip a copy of the draft agreement from the hands of the speaker of parliament.
Othman puts the blame for the tensions on the Iraqi and American governments.
"They have been negotiating for nine months, without transparency, behind closed doors, without people knowing about it," he says. "Without us knowing about it. ... This is wrong. Now they say, 'We give you one week to ratify it, or not.' "
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared on television Tuesday night to defend the agreement. He said if the treaty is approved, U.S. forces would no longer be able to carry out raids or arrest Iraqi citizens without first getting permission from the Iraqi government.
The agreement stipulates that American troops will pull back from Iraqi cities and towns by June of 2009, and withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Parliament has been asked to vote on whether to approve the agreement next week, but some opposition political parties say they want to make additional changes to the document.