Deal to leave

Published : Jan 02, 2009 00:00 IST

A U.S. Soldier at Baquba, 65 km north-east of Baghdad, on November 3.-GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

A U.S. Soldier at Baquba, 65 km north-east of Baghdad, on November 3.-GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

Iraq: The Status of Forces Agreement calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the whole of Iraq by the end of 2011.

IN the first week of December, the Iraqi parliament voted for a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States. On December 4, the countrys three-member Presidency Council gave its formal approval to the controversial deal, which will come into effect on January 1, 2009.

Sections of the Iraqi people oppose the agreement, but general opinion is that, at least on paper, it is a significant step forward to end the American occupation. The agreement calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from all Iraqi cities, towns and villages by the middle of 2009 and from the whole of Iraq by the end of 2011. Article 25 of the agreement calls for the creation of mechanisms and arrangements to reduce the U.S. force levels within the specified time period.

There is no 50-year mandate for U.S. bases in Iraq as many had predicted. According to reports, the George W. Bush administration also gave an undertaking to Iraq that its territory will not be used to launch attacks against any neighbouring country. The SOFA was passed by a narrow majority in parliament after last-minute compromises. Shia and Kurd legislators had to agree to the demand of Sunni legislators for a nation-wide referendum on the pact in July 2009.

If Iraqis vote against the agreement, then the U.S. government will be given a years notice for complete withdrawal of its forces from the country. The Iraqi parliament simultaneously passed another U.S.-Iraq bilateral pact called the Strategic Framework Agreement, aimed at ensuring the constitutional rights of the Sunni minority.

On the day the SOFA was signed, thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad. The radical Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who has bitterly opposed the agreement, called for a three-day national mourning period, saying that the pact legitimised the American-led occupation. His Mahdi militia has threatened to reopen hostilities against the occupation forces.

The level of violence in the country has escalated since the Iraqi parliament approved the agreement. But many Western analysts and commentators think that the new agreement is a defeat for the neoconservative plan of turning Iraq into a vassal state and using it as a platform to project power in West Asia.

The Bush administration tried to get from the Iraqi government concessions that would have allowed U.S. forces to stay on beyond 2011. The U.S. also wanted immunity for its troops in Iraq and a longer lease on its military bases. Both these wishes have not been fulfilled. American contractors, in fact mercenaries, will now come under Iraqi jurisdiction. Article 12 of the SOFA states that Iraq has the primary legal jurisdiction over the contractors with the U.S. and their employees.

Contractors, especially those belonging to the Blackwater group, are responsible for the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians. At present there is an estimated 163,000-strong army of contractors in Iraq. The agreement also states that the United States recognises the sovereign right of the government of Iraq to request the departure of the United States Forces from Iraq at any time.

American troops are forbidden by the SOFA from carrying out operations without Iraqi approval and from detaining any Iraqi citizen without a court warrant. Earlier, American troops and contractors had a free run in the country.

Article 3 of the agreement prohibits the transferring of any non-U.S. citizen from Iraq. The Bush administration has been using Iraq as a base for its extraordinary renditions programme under which suspects were routinely picked up and extradited to American safe houses outside Iraq.

It was on the insistence of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani that the tough new conditions were imposed on the Americans. It was his implicit backing for the revised SOFA text that got the required consensus in parliament. The Bush administration had pressured the Iraqi government by threatening to withdraw American forces expeditiously if the agreement was not approved by parliament.

Iraqi security forces are woefully unprepared to maintain the unity of the country in the wake of the devastation and confusion created by the American-led occupation. Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki added to the panic in Iraqs ruling circles by saying that if the pact was not approved there would be an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

American commentators say that the lame duck Bush administration did not exert too much pressure on the Iraqi government as the President-elect, Barack Obama, has strongly signalled that he proposes to withdraw American troops from Iraq in the next couple of years.

But the U.S. will continue to have considerable leverage in Iraq. It controls more than $10 billion worth assets seized from the Iraqi government after the 2003 invasion and the proceeds from the export of oil held under a Special Purpose Account on behalf of the U.S. Department of Treasury. The funds were meant to assist the people of Iraq in the reconstruction and development of their economy. In reality, the money has been used mainly to benefit American corporations that have been given contracts in Iraq.

In the debate before the approval of the SOFA, Iraqi parliamentarians wanted guarantees from the United Nations that Iraqi assets would be protected against claims involving billions of dollars. Such legal claims by companies, individuals and countries under the guise of war reparations or breach of contract could make it difficult for Iraq to sell its oil and conduct financial dealings with international banking institutions.

Senior U.S. officials said that the SOFA contained assurances that the U.S. would work to extend the protection of Iraqi assets by the U.N. Security Council. The current Security Council resolution requires all Iraqi oil revenues to be first deposited at the New York Federal Reserve Bank before it is sent back to Iraq to meet budgetary requirements.

The Maliki government may have given assurances to Washington about the possible deployment of U.S. troops continuing beyond 2011. Iraqs Defence Minister Abdul Qadir al-Obaidi spoke about the possibility of American troops being needed in Iraq after 2011. He said that a precipitate American withdrawal would turn Iraq into another Somalia, and the rampant acts of piracy in the Gulf of Aden could be replicated in the Persian Gulf too.

White House Press Secretary Dan Perino went to the extent of saying that the withdrawal dates mentioned in the SOFA text were only aspirational dates. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that it was theoretically possible for the deadline for the complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq to be extended.

An earlier draft of the SOFA, which permitted U.S. forces to stay beyond 2011, does not figure in the final agreement. Until recently, highly placed American officials were talking about the possibility of 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops staying beyond 2011 in Iraq for training and support. Senior U.S. military officials have told the American media that it would be logistically impossible to dismantle dozens of large U.S. bases in Iraq within three years and withdraw 150,000 American troops quickly.

The U.S. has built 14 mega military bases and a humongous embassy in Iraq, in preparation for a long stay. The agreement states that both countries retain the right to legitimate self-defence within Iraq, as applicable by defined international law.

The Bush administration had defended the invasion of Iraq as an act of self-defence. The U.S. could try to prolong its stay in Iraq and hold on to its expensive bases, citing self-defence as a pretext. The U.S. military establishment does not seem to be in sync with Obamas plans for a speedy withdrawal.

The public mood in Iraq is overwhelmingly against a continued American military presence. A 2007 survey reported in the American media showed that Iraqis cutting across the religious and sectarian divide viewed the U.S. occupation as the primary cause of violence in their country. The majority of Iraqis felt that the departure of the occupying forces would hasten national reconciliation.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq has been dwindling on a daily basis. In the past two months, troops from Bosnia-Herzegovina, South Korea, Poland, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Latvia and Azerbaijan have left. Japan will end its air force mission flying supplies into Iraq by the year end.

There are 146,000 American, 4,100 British and fewer than 1,000 other foreign troops left in Iraq now. The U.N. mandate governing foreign troops in Iraq expires at the end of 2008. The Iraqi government has announced that it does not want the mandate to be renewed.

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