During March and April 2009 U.S. generals repeatedly talked about asking the Iraqis to stay in certain unstable cities past the summer deadline set by the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Domestic Iraqi politics are now complicating that idea. A series of raids by American forces that killed Iraqi civilians, a possible July referendum on the agreement, and parliamentary elections have all put pressure on Baghdad to abide by the SOFA benchmarks. Publicly Iraqi officials are saying that the Americans will be out, but they may end up staying anyway.
At the end of the Bush administration in December 2008 the U.S. and Iraqi governments signed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The deal created a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal, which the Obama White House has said is binding. In February 2009 President Obama announced his plan to pull out of Iraq. Following the SOFA, all U.S. troops have to be out of Iraq’s cities and towns by June 30, 2009. After Iraq’s provincial elections, combat troops will be drawn down leaving behind a force of 35,000-50,000 that will ultimately leave by December 31, 2011. Either side can end the agreement or amend it if both sides agree. There is also supposed to be an Iraqi referendum on the SOFA in July 2009.
Taking advantage of the loophole in the SOFA the U.S. military began floating the idea of American forces staying in certain Iraqi cities past the June 2009 deadline. The U.S. commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno for example gave an interview with ABC News in early March 2009 saying that he planned on asking Baghdad to allow American troops to stay in Baquba, Diyala province, Mosul, Ninewa province, and Kirkuk, Tamim province. At the end of the month the U.S. general in charge of American ground forces in Iraq made similar statements, adding the city of Basra as another place where the Americans were hoping the Iraqis would ask them to stay longer. By May 8, Gen. Odierno had shorted the list to just Baghdad and Mosul. All of those cities except for Basra are some of the most violent in the country, and American commanders are worried about what will happen to security without their forces there. At the end of April, formal discussions began on extending the U.S. stay, and they are still on going.
What’s complicating the matter is domestic pressure within Iraq. First, American troops conducted a series of raids that resulted in several deaths of Iraqi civilians recently. In January 2009 U.S. soldiers shot a couple in a town near Kirkuk in Tamim province. In February another raid outside of Kirkuk led to the death of an Iraqi man. The local police chief and Iraqi Army commander claimed they knew nothing of the U.S. operation. In April two civilians in Kut, Wasit province were killed in their house by Americans. 100s of Iraqis protested the deaths. Maliki demanded that the soldiers responsible be turned over to Iraqi courts, that the attack violated the SOFA, and he told the BBC that he would not ask the U.S. to stay in urban areas past the June deadline. The same day a spokesman for the Defense Ministry repeated Maliki’s remarks, followed by the Prime Minister’s spokesman at the beginning of May.
The purpose of Maliki pushing for the SOFA in the first place was to prove his nationalist credentials to his population. Now Iraqi ire at Americans killing civilians is putting pressure on Baghdad to condemn any extensions on the agreement’s deadlines. It’s unknown whether Iraq will hold the July referendum on the SOFA, but if it does happen, the government needs to appear to be asserting Iraqi sovereignty whenever possible to get it passed. The country is also expected to have parliamentary elections within a year, and the agreement will be used by Maliki’s State of Law List to prove that they are for an independent Iraq that can defend itself. At the same time that Baghdad is playing politics, American forces will still be able to carry out operations in Iraqi cities, just from large bases on the periphery, and negotiations are still underway for staying in some cities. Maliki and American commanders are thus hoping for the best of both worlds, propping up popular support for the Prime Minister, while maintaining a U.S. presence.
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