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Fight Breaks Out As Iraqi Lawmakers Debate Pact

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Fight Breaks Out As Iraqi Lawmakers Debate Pact

Iraq

Fight Breaks Out As Iraqi Lawmakers Debate Pact

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

When it comes to civility in politics, that was in short supply today in the Iraqi parliament. A fistfight broke out when legislators were supposed to be debating a new security pact with the United States. It calls for the withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. It took members of the U.S. and Iraqi government nearly a year of negotiations to reach the agreement, but Iraq's parliament only has a week to ratify it. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Baghdad.

IVAN WATSON: Tempers flared in parliament today when Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari tried to explain the new treaty to angry lawmakers.

(Soundbite of Arabic spoken)

WATSON: Normally, journalists aren't 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 today was a lawmaker from Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's faction denouncing the agreement.

(Soundbite of Arabic spoken)

WATSON: Sadr has opposed the security pact almost from the beginning. Today, as his supporter addressed parliament, the audio and video feed abruptly dropped out.

(Soundbite of Arabic spoken)

WATSON: Seconds later, state TV resumed regular programming with an unrelated news broadcast.

(Soundbite of Arabic spoken)

WATSON: Meanwhile, off camera, uniformed Iraqi guards raced to the parliament building, locking doors and barring lawmakers and journalists from leaving.

(Soundbite of whistle) WATSON: Rumors quickly spread that a fight had broken out inside the assembly hall. Mahmoud Othman is a Kurdish lawmaker.

WATSON: Was there a fistfight? Were people punching?

Mr. MAHMOUD OTHMAN (Kurdish Lawmaker): There was a bit of a fistfight between this one, Massoudi, and some of the guards of Mashhadani who tried to take him out.

WATSON: Ahmad al Massoudi is a lawmaker from Sadr's faction. Mahmoud al Mashhadani is the parliament speaker. Falah Hassan Shenshel, another Sadrist lawmaker, emerged from the assembly hall after the fight, his face dripping with sweat.

(Soundbite of Arabic spoken)

WATSON: He said bodyguards accompanying 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. Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman blames the tensions on the Iraqi and American governments.

Mr. OTHMAN: They have been negotiating for nine months without transparency, behind closed doors, without people knowing about it, without us knowing about it, parliament. This is wrong. Now, they say, we give you one week to ratify it, or not.

WATSON: Last night, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki appeared on television to defend the agreement.

Prime Minister NOURI AL MALIKI (Iraq): (Arabic spoken)

WATSON: 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 next year, and withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011. Parliament has been asked to vote whether or not to approve the agreement next week. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Baghdad.

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