Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s move appeared to disregard the wishes of the U.S. government, which has quietly lobbied against the plebiscite. American officials fear it could lead to the annulment of an agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay until the end of 2011, and instead force them out by the start of that year.

The Maliki government’s announcement came on the day that the top U.S. general in Iraq proposed a plan to deploy troops to disputed areas in the restive north, a clear indication that the military sees a continuing need for U.S. forces even if Iraqis no longer want them here…

If Iraqi lawmakers sign off on Maliki’s initiative to hold a referendum in January on the withdrawal timeline, a majority of voters could annul a standing U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, forcing the military to pull out completely by January 2011 under the terms of a previous law…

U.S. officials say they have no way to know how the referendum would turn out, but they worry that many Iraqis are likely to vote against the pact. Maliki billed the withdrawal of U.S. forces from urban areas at the end of June as a “great victory” for Iraqis, and his government has since markedly curbed the authority and mobility of U.S. forces.