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SOFA Issues

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

20 October 2008

The leaking of the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and the more general strategical framework deal between the United States and Iraq has been so gradual that few surprises remained by the time most details were finally considered to be in the public domain last week.

Perhaps the most interesting way of looking at the proposed deal is to study it from the point of view of the Iraqi government. It appears to be the case that at some point in the second half of 2007, Nuri al-Maliki realised that pressures towards a timetable for withdrawal of the American forces were becoming irresistible even inside the Iraqi parliament. Accordingly, he declared that the extension of the UN mandate in December 2007 would be the last of its kind, and bilateral negotiations with the US were opened. The move was not without some interesting historical parallels: Iraq’s first king, Faysal I, always made a point of pretending that the League of Nations mandate for Iraq never existed, and instead insisted on bilateral treaties with Britain – which were portrayed as a more honourable way of having a relationship between two nations. A remarkable innovation in 2007 by Maliki (or possibly Adil Abd al-Mahdi) was the idea that the bilateral treaty with the US would “liberate Iraq from the stigma of Chapter VII of the United Nations charter”. Before this idea was articulated by Maliki and Abd al-Mahdi in the autumn of 2007, few Iraqis had probably thought of it as a big deal and certainly not a “stigma” – to them the foreign presence in general was the problem. But the trick has been remarkably successful in terms of PR, not least vis-a-vis the Western media where it seems to be taken very seriously.

Maliki knows about the forces of Iraqi nationalism and has always known that at some point the popular pressure towards withdrawal of foreign forces will force him to stand on his own feet. Hence, his calculation has probably been to maximise his benefits as a strongman ruler in the window that is available to him. Iraqi attempts to influence the modalities of withdrawal can in fact be traced back to at least the first half of 2007, when, according to BBC interviews with leading British officials, the Iraqis impressed on the Brits that they were the problem and not the solution in Basra and effectively intimidated them into withdrawing. Less than one year later, Maliki had strengthened his influence in the southern port city which had posed such a big problem to his ambitions ever since he became prime minister in 2006. The timeline for the full withdrawal – the end of 2011 – seems almost perfect from Maliki’s point of view, as he can use that period to exploit the American presence as much as possible before the nationalist pressures become unbearable. Clues to his motives may be found explicitly in the text of the agreement: the United States undertakes to deliver “cooperation in carrying out operations against al-Qaida, other terror groups and outlawed groups, including remnants of the former regime” and “bolstering the security capabilities of Iraq” – in other word, to make Maliki a very strong ruler and to help him sideline his political adversaries.

A Sadrist demand that is clearly reflected in the proposed deal is the idea of withdrawing US forces from all population centres by the summer of 2009. This has been a consistent theme among the Sadrists ever since the summer of 2003: they wanted to get the occupation forces out of sight of the local population. This is what they focused on in Basra back in 2003, and this is what they celebrated when the British concentrated at the airport in 2007. Potential remaining problems from Maliki’s point of view concern sovereignty issues and advisers: the proposed solution with a joint Iraqi-American commission that will make decisions concerning Iraqi jurisdiction over US forces seems unconvincing to many Iraqis, and with the legacies of the British mandate and more recently Abu Ghrayb, Maliki knows that the Iraqi public is unlikely to accept foreign advisers or immunity for foreign forces on duty in the long run.

A big question for the Democratic Party in the US which has so far received only limited attention is how the logic of the Iraqi end game will be affected by the agreement. If the deal is a straightforward military one, with specific rules for abrogating the contract prematurely (one year’s notice has been mentioned as a possible arrangement), and with no elements of political reconciliation built into the treaty, it is very difficult to see how the goals in the recently-declared Obama-Biden plan for Iraq can ever come on the agenda. Obama and Biden have promised to “engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society – in and out of government – to forge compromises on oil revenue sharing, the equitable provision of services, federalism, the status of disputed territories, new elections, aid to displaced Iraqis, and the reform of Iraqi security forces”, but is it not likely that Maliki, who is entirely uninterested in this kind of “deep reconciliation”, will simply refer to the existing SOFA and bilateral treaty and then refuse any talk about political issues? Will he not conclude that he has already achieved most if not all of what he wanted from Washington and therefore that the US is not in a position to exercise leverage? A recent ISCI policy document presented to the Americans at the United States Institute of Peace emphasised this kind of attitude: there was no mention of constitutional revision, but US support to build up the security forces of Iraq was highlighted as a key element in future cooperation.

Iran, it seems, may be the winner whatever the outcome. Its role in influencing the deal is highly disputed. The Bush administration prefers to portray this as an arrangement wanted by the Maliki government and resisted by Iran through supposed partnerships with the Sadrists (and through bribing others). Many Iraqis will say that it is highly unlikely that the negotiations would have progressed as far as they have had not the Iranians at least been interested in the process. Because they have leverage over the Sadrists, Daawa and the Islamic Supreme Council (ISCI) alike, the Iranians are in a very good position to constantly invent new problems and thereby maximise their influence on the negotiations (the latest series of objections by the assumed pro-treaty ISCI is a case in point). The end result may well be a deal that is in fact tolerable to Iran in that it keeps US forces bogged down in Iraq and helps the Maliki government with the finishing touches in its project of achieving dominance in Iraq. Tehran will always have the fallback option of letting the Iraqi parliament make the difficult choice (or even the Iraqi people, as suggested recently by Sadr al-Din al-Qabbanji of ISCI). If Daawa, ISCI and the Kurds consider the deal acceptable it is not inconceivable that the more nationalist 22 July parties may split over the issue, with some factions perhaps viewing the agreement as a temporary postponement of full Iranian dominance and therefore the lesser evil, while others may consider it as a tool that ultimately will strengthen pro-Iranian elements in the Iraqi government. Alternatively, if the deal fails, Iran’s leaders will probably hope for a Democratic administration that is interested in some kind of Dayton-style bargain that could formalise the gains they have made in Iraq since 2003. Maliki, for his part, may still harbour hopes of a semi-independent position in which he can rely on strong security forces and a patronage-style government instead of turning to Tehran, but unless he makes some dramatic turnabouts in parliamentary politics and starts building ties beyond the Kurds and ISCI, he will probably need Iran once the Americans leave.

Today, the most realistic plan for reducing Iran’s influence in Iraq is one that is simply not on the table: freeze the one-sided support for the Maliki government, single out the parliamentary elections of 2009 as the last possibility for doing something sustainable about constitutional revision through the creation of a new revision committee, and make sure that those elections are truly free and fair and attract maximum participation by the Iraqi electorate.

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