Today November 26, Iraq’s parliament showed up to work expecting to vote on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in the morning, which would set military relations between the U.S. and Iraq for the next several years. Instead they were told that they would vote on the agreement tomorrow November 27, along with a separate bill put forward by the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front. The recent negotiations over the deal point to several important facts. First, the Sadrists recently received a lot of press for demonstrating against the SOFA, but they really had no say on whether it would pass or not. It was the Sunni parties that were the real swing votes. Second, the Sunni demands may derail the entire process. Third, the fact that the Americans gave in to so many concessions showed that the White House was always working from a position of weakness vis-a-vis the Iraqis. Fourth, the Iranians may have finally agreed to the deal, and last, many of the compromises Baghdad recently was able to gain may be largely symbolic and upset many later on.
Was Opposed By A Small Minority…
In November 2007, the U.S. and Iraq signed a Declaration of Principles that was to set up the long-term security relationship between the two countries. That agreement was to be the basis for the SOFA. Originally, the deal was to be signed by the end of July 2008. As that date approached, Moqtada al-Sadr began calling for weekly protests against the SOFA. Sadr has always preached Iraqi nationalism, and objected to any agreement that would legitimize the U.S. presence in the country. Instead, he demanded that the U.S. withdraw immediately. His call for protests was also motivated by a need to rebuild his movement and maintain his supporters after the government launched successive military operations against them in Basra, Sadr City, and Maysan province. The Sadrists were joined by the Fadhila party, which is based in Basra, and former Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National List in opposing the agreement. The Sadrists hold 30 seats in parliament, the Fadhila 15, and the Iraqi National List 25. Together they do not have enough votes to block the agreement from passing, and the National List might change sides and support it if the Sunnis’ demands are met.
But The Sunnis Were The Real Swing Voters …
While Sadr was trying to rally his followers against the SOFA, the real deciders on the matter were the Sunni parties. In the summer of 2008 Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said that he would sign off on the agreement if it protected Iraq’s sovereignty, was passed by parliament, and all major parties agreed upon it. By November the Kurdish Alliance and the United Iraqi Alliance, the two largest coalitions in parliament, had come out for the SOFA. Together they had enough votes for a straight majority, 138 votes, to pass the agreement. However, because of Sistani’s insistence on national consensus on the SOFA, the Shiites and Kurds had to bring the Sunnis on board. That put the Iraqi Accordance Front in the driver's seat. They demanded that they receive more say in the government and the security forces, that prisoners held by the U.S. that are not charged with a crime be released, and a national referendum is held on the SOFA. As the vote on the agreement came down to the wire, they were able to get these concessions.
Whose Demand For A National Referendum May Undermine the SOFA …
Tomorrow when parliament reconvenes they will vote on the SOFA, and a separate bill that includes the Sunnis’ demands. If the bill is passed there will be a special election on the SOFA in July 2009. The problem is that U.S. forces are operating in Iraq under a United Nations mandate that expires on December 31, 2008. If the referendum bill is passed, that means the agreement won’t come to a conclusion until the summer of 2009, and even then the Iraqi public may veto it. That would mean the Americans would have to go back to the U.N. for another yearlong authorization, undermining the whole point of the SOFA, which is to take the place of the U.N. deal.
Which Highlights The Weak American Position …
The U.S. finds itself in an unenviable position. This has been true since the beginning of the negotiations however. From the start, the Iraqis knew that President Bush wanted an agreement before he left office. It never appeared that the White House tried to convince the Iraqis of why they needed the U.S. Instead, Baghdad made more and more demands, and the Americans gave in, especially as time passed, deadlines were not met, and the end of the U.N. mandate lurked. The Iraqis were able to set a specific deadline, 2009, for when U.S. troops would be out of Iraq’s cities, and a 2011 date for when U.S. troops would be out of the entire country. They also got the administration to agree to Iraqis checking American cargo and mail coming to Iraq, ending immunity for foreign contractors and security guards, having a say over intelligence gathering and U.S. military operations, control over the Green Zone, requiring American soldiers to get an Iraqi warrant to conduct searches, not allowing the U.S. to use Iraq to attack any other country, turning over anyone arrested to the Iraqis within 24 hours, and control of Iraqi air space. This has upset some in the U.S. military and Pentagon, but after Barak Obama took the lead in the presidential race, and eventually won the election, President Bush was even more determined to sign the SOFA rather than leave it to his successor. Now they may have to reconfigure all of their plans if the Iraqi legislature agrees to hold a referendum in 2009.
And The Strength Of Iran’s Position…
Iran appears to have several different positions on the SOFA, but may be finally signing off on it. From the beginning, Iran has seen the U.S. presence in Iraq as a threat to its security. They were therefore against the SOFA that would maintain the American military in Iraq. Many Iranian newspapers along with the country’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaker of Iran’s parliament Ali Larijani, among others have publicly said that Iraq should not sign the agreement. At the same time others such as the head of Iran’s judiciary Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi and Iranian TV have made statements supporting the deal. Attacks by Special Groups and other Iranian backed militants are also down across the country, which Tehran has tempered before during important political decisions it has supported in the past. While there are recent statements in the Iranian press against the agreement, it appears that Tehran has acquiesced to the SOFA especially after Baghdad was able to get the U.S. to agree to not use the country as a base for attacks upon its neighbors, and that it sets a specific date for an American withdrawal. Both would be considered wins for Iran.
But Parts Of The Agreement May Be More Symbolic Anyway
The last major problem with the SOFA is how the Americans and Iraqis interpret the SOFA when and if it is passed. Many of the concessions that Baghdad was able to gain may be more symbolic than real. McClatchy Newspapers for example, pointed out three articles in the agreement that the U.S. sees differently than Baghdad. First, the Americans have agreed to allow U.S. soldiers that commit crimes when they are off duty and off base to be tried by joint U.S. and Iraqi courts. This is a largely meaningless article meant to appease Iraqis because U.S. forces rarely go off base when they are off duty, not to mention that Baghdad and Washington have to negotiate over how these joint courts would work, which could take years. By that time, the U.S. may be out of the country. Second, the agreement says that the U.S. cannot use Iraq as a base to attack other countries. The Americans believe this does not prohibit hot pursuit and the right of self-defense, which could make the point mean nothing. Finally, the U.S. military believes that the Iraqi security forces are full of insurgents, Sadrists, and people who simply want to make a buck, and therefore do not trust them with advance warning and detailed information on military operations. This is becoming less of an issue as the U.S. is moving from conducting their own operations to supporting Iraqi ones. Still, the Pentagon does not want to give Baghdad control over their planning. These last two could make many Iraqis and Iran mad if they are implemented in the way the U.S. sees them. The White House in fact, is withholding its version of the agreement until it is passed by Iraq’s parliament because they are afraid it will undermine support for the SOFA.
Tomorrow will be another important date in the process of passing the SOFA, but it will not be the last. The agreement still needs to go to the Presidential Council for approval, and if the parliament agrees on it, there will be a referendum in July 2009. That may force Iraq to go back to the United Nations for a new mandate to legalize America’s presence in the country, something that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said he is loath to do. Either that or the U.S. and Iraq may have to come up with some kind of ad hoc interpretation of the SOFA. That means there is still much to watch for as the agreement proceeds along.
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