Scheming to stay on

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

A U.S. soldier on guard during the opening of a community centre on May 20, in a village south-east of Baghdad.-ERIK DE CASTRO/REUTERS

A U.S. soldier on guard during the opening of a community centre on May 20, in a village south-east of Baghdad.-ERIK DE CASTRO/REUTERS

As the U.N. mandate to stay in Iraq draws to a close, the U.S. proposes a new deal that will give a legal basis for its continued military presence.

FOR some time now, the United States has been trying to arm-twist the Iraqi government into signing a new security agreement. According to most Iraqi political leaders, including Ministers and parliamentarians, the proposed Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), drafted in Washington, if approved by the Iraqi government, would provide iron-clad guarantees for U.S. troops to stay on in the country for the foreseeable future. The United Nations mandate for U.S. forces to be stationed in Iraq expires in December this year.

The new deal will give a legal basis for continued U.S. military presence after December 31. Barring the U.S. and the United Kingdom, only a handful of countries have a token military presence in Iraq now. The newly elected Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced in the first week of June that his country was pulling out the last of its soldiers.

The U.S. administration has denied that it wants to establish a permanent military presence in Iraq. But the developments on the ground give the opposite impression. The Americans have been busy expanding the al-Asad military base close to Syria and the Balad base near the Iranian border. The American bases in Kirkuk and Mosul in northern Iraq are among its biggest in the region. Most of the U.S. troops and equipment based in Saudi Arabia have now been transferred to the bases in Iraq.

The 12-paragraph draft of the accord provides for the presence of U.S. troops for an unlimited period of time and allows them freedom of military operation. Iraq could be used as a base by U.S. forces to attack neighbouring countries such as Iran and Syria. The agreement would give the green light for Americans to build 50 military bases in Iraq for 50,000 U.S. troops to be stationed permanently there. The U.S. has also demanded control of Iraqi air space and the right to conduct its war on terror inside Iraq. U.S. soldiers under the SOFA would not be prosecuted in Iraqi courts for crimes against Iraqi citizens.

Details of some new contract proposals between the U.S. and Iraqi governments have already leaked out. U.S. contractors would be appointed to supervise the working of Iraqs Interior, Defence and Law Ministries and provide protection to Iraqi courts. Another proposal is for the appointment of more than 100 Arabic-speaking U.S. citizens who would look after Iraqi detainees in U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. Under the terms of the proposed contract, American mentors would advice and assist Iraqi officers in the Ministries of Defence and Interior.

According to documents quoted in the American media, the U.S. has plans to create an Iraqi service known as the Judicial Protection Service modelled to some degree after the U.S. Marshals Service that will ensure the safe conduct of judicial proceedings and protect judges, witnesses, court staff, and court facilities.

Democratic Party legislators in the U.S. Congress have been urging the George W. Bush administration against signing long-term security deals with Iraq. They have insisted that any security deal with Iraq should have the approval of Congress. With the Democrats hopeful of capturing the White House, the prospects of a lame-duck President committing the U.S. forces in Iraq for a long haul is not a welcome prospect.

Withdrawal of forces from Iraq is a big issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. Bush is keen to expedite a comprehensive security deal with the Iraqi government by July for partisan political purposes. If the accord is inked by the Iraqi government before the deadline, then Bush will claim some justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The real purpose of the war was to maintain the stranglehold over West Asias oil and gas. If the Iraqi government agrees to the long-term presence of U.S. troops in their country, a Democratic President-elect will find it difficult to order large-scale troop withdrawal from Iraq. The Republican candidate, John McCain, has been claiming that the U.S. has already won in Iraq and that any precipitate withdrawal from Iraq would be construed as a defeat.

The radical anti-U.S. Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, who has emerged as the leading political figure in Iraq, said in the last week of May that signing the agreement with the U.S. would be against the interest of the Iraqi people. His supporters, in response to a request from him, are staging protests in Baghdad and other cities every Friday. Sadr has said that the protests will continue until the treaty is cancelled. He described the U.S.-Iraqi negotiations on the treaty as a project of humiliation for the Iraqi people.

Another important leader of the Shia political bloc, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, said any agreement regarding Americas long-term military role in Iraq would be a violation of the countrys sovereignty.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, known to be a man of few words but of considerable influence in the government and among the Shia populace, has been voicing his staunch opposition to a long-term military deal with the U.S. He has said on several occasions in recent weeks that he will not permit the Iraqi government to sign a deal with the U.S. occupiers as long as he is alive. Sistani had forced the Americans to hold a referendum on the new Iraqi Constitution in 2003 and the election of a new parliament.

The Bush administration had wanted to install more pliable puppets such as Ahmed Chalabi in power. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Malki and the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq Ryan Crocker called on Sistani in the last week of May. They know that if Sistani issues a fatwa against the deal, as he is being urged to do by many Iraqis, then the SOFA would be dead.

Sistani and other Iraqi political leaders would like the proposed agreement to be at least put to a referendum. But the Bush administration knows that Iraqis will reject it and has therefore vetoed the proposal.

Sunni politicians have also come out strongly against the deal. The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni grouping, stated that those supporting the agreement would be viewed as collaborators with the occupiers. The majority of Iraqi parliamentarians have written a letter to the U.S. Congress rejecting the long-term security deal unless a firm timetable is set for the final departure of all U.S. troops from Iraq.

The negotiations are conducted in utmost secrecy. Iraqi officials have said that they have been told by their American counterparts to desist from revealing the details. The Bush administration is using Chapter 7, under which the U.N. Security Council still considers Iraq a threat to international security, to pressure Baghdad into signing the agreement. Iraq was put under this category after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. Washington has indicated that Chapter 7 would be lifted only after Baghdad signs on to a new wide-ranging security arrangement on its terms.

The U.S. is refusing to release the $50 billion of Iraqi money in American banks until the SOFA is signed. This money is withheld by the U.S. government on the pretext that there are court judgments against Iraq in the U.S. Iraq stands to lose nearly 40 per cent of its foreign exchange reserve if it does not play ball with the Bush administration. Under the prevailing U.N. sanctions, Iraq is forced to deposit its foreign exchange earnings in the Federal Reserve in New York.

The Iraqi government had wanted to transfer some of the deposits to European banks given the steady decline in the value of the dollar. This was vetoed by the U.S. Treasury. Losses to the Iraqi exchequer are estimated to be in billions of euros.

Senior establishment figures in neighbouring Iran have also voiced their deep concerns about the planned U.S.-Iraq agreement. Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister and currently an adviser on international affairs to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has described the proposed accord as a law of domination. He accused the Bush administration of resorting to various plots to secure unlimited control over Iraq for itself and the Zionists.

Velayati pointed out that the proposed accord stipulated that Iraqs Ministries of Defence, Intelligence and Interior will operate under U.S. supervision for 10 years. The former President of Iran, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, during a recent visit to Mecca, said that the essence of the security agreement is to turn Iraqis into slaves of the Americans. Rafsanjani warned that the occupation of Iraq represents a danger to all the nations in the region. Both Rafsanjani and Velayati continue to enjoy considerable influence in the Iranian government.

The pro-Western monarchies in the region seem to be viewing the deal as a bulwark against a resurgent Iran. Their fear of Iran extending its influence overrides concerns about the threat to regional security posed by American militarism. Many of the Gulf states already host American bases on their territory. The United Arab Emirates allowed France to open a new military base last year.

Even Algeria has allowed the U.S. to set up a small military base. Algeria at one time was at the forefront of the struggle against imperialism. As a prominent Arab journalist in Amman told this correspondent, most Arab states today are either militarily or economically subservient to the U.S. But the Iraqis have a history of successfully fighting foreign domination.

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