AFP - The fate of British forces in Iraq was hanging in the balance on Monday after parliament delayed a crucial vote on a resolution that would give the troops a legal basis to remain in the country after a UN mandate expires in 10 days.
The issue has been derailed by calls by MPs for speaker Mahmud Mashhadani to be sacked, triggering an unprecedented parliamentary crisis after he described some lawmakers as "sons of dogs" during a rowdy session last week.
"The crisis is at its peak as the majority of MPs want to see Mashhadani sacked after he insulted them last week," said Sheikh Jamal al-Butikh, who heads the Iraqi National List in the 275-seat assembly.
Parliament was due to vote on Monday on a resolution that would mandate the government to sign bilateral deals with the countries that still have troops on Iraqi soil, mainly British.
Without such a resolution, the presence of non-US foreign troops in Iraq will be illegal when the UN mandate expires on December 31. It is not known when parliament might vote on the issue, although it is due to go into recess on Tuesday.
The United States, which supplies 95 percent of foreign troops in Iraq, has already signed a Status of Forces Agreement with the Baghdad government, under which its combat forces can remain in the country until the end of 2011.
But an emergency meeting was convened after 54 MPs out of 150 deputies present in parliament had signed a petition calling for Mashhadani's dismissal.
Most of the signatories belong to the two main parliamentary blocs, the Shiites United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish Alliance and some independents.
"The MPs are only speaking of this issue and have completely forgotten the issue of non-US forces," an official in parliament told AFP on condition of anonymity.
On Wednesday, the first reading of a bill on the future of non-US forces took place amid uproar in the aftermath of the protest by an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at visiting US President George W. Bush earlier this month.
Mashhadani lost his temper, branding some MPs as "sons of dogs". He announced his resignation, but later retracted it.
And he was in equally feisty mood on Monday.
"It is not you who decide my fate in Baghdad. Go back to Arbil," Mashhadani angrily told a Kurdish MP, according to one parliamentary source.
During a surprise visit to Iraq last week, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that his country's troops would wrap up their mission by the end of May and later said that all but 400 would be out by the end of July.
There currently 4,100 British troops in Iraq concentrated around Basra airport in the south.
Asked what would happen if no agreement was in place by December 31, British Defence Secretary John Hutton said on Sunday: "That would be a very serious situation and obviously we couldn't let it happen, but I don't think it will happen.
"We have contingency plans. The safety of our guys out there is our top priority. There will have to be an agreement, a proper agreement, before our guys are out on the streets."
Brown's predecessor Tony Blair was widely criticised for his decision to join the United States in the March 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, who was executed in December 2006 for crimes against humanity.
A total of 178 British soldiers have died in Iraq since the invasion, 136 of them as a result of hostile action.
Meanwhile, the commander of the US-led military in Iraq said that US forces will be deployed to southern Iraq to replace the departing British troops.
"It is important that we provide some forces to lend oversight in southern Iraq," General Raymond Odierno told AFP, without giving further details.
"Clearly, the Iraqi security forces are playing the major role in security for the area. We want to maintain ongoing training and continuity of communications with the Iraqi security forces to ensure that we can respond to their requests for assistance," he added.