Anger on the street

Published : Nov 21, 2008 00:00 IST

U.S. soldiers search a house for weapons in a village near Baquba in Diyala province on October 23.-GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

U.S. soldiers search a house for weapons in a village near Baquba in Diyala province on October 23.-GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

Iraqi people recognise as a sham the draft agreement with the U.S. on a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from the country.

THE draft Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) on a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq has sparked widespread anger across the country, cutting across the ideological and sectarian divide. The draft, which was initially approved by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and United States President George W. Bush, calls for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities by July 30, 2009, and the country by December 2011.

It allows for a withdrawal earlier than 2011 or an extension of U.S. presence if both parties agree. Controversially, the agreement permits the Iraqi government to request the United States government to leave certain forces for training and for support purposes for the Iraqi forces. The draft has to be formalised before December 31, the date when the United Nations mandate for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq expires.

Nouri al-Maliki thought he had assuaged partially the nationalistic feelings by making the U.S. agree formally to put under Iraqi jurisdiction its troops and contractors who commit major and premeditated murders while off-duty and outside military camps. The initial Iraqi demand was that U.S. troops on duty should come under Iraqi jurisdiction. Negotiations on this issue went on for months.

The other points covered in the draft agreement include Iraqi ownership of all the buildings, facilities and structures used by American forces. Such facilities, according to the draft agreement, will be returned to Iraq after the U.S. troops withdraw.

The Bush administration had until recently hoped to have a permanent base in Iraq, so as to retain a military presence in West Asia and also to encircle Iran with military bases. The U.S. has built huge military bases in Iraq, and its embassy in Baghdad is the size of the Vatican.

If Iraq is able to withstand American pressure on the SOFA issue, it will be a significant landmark in contemporary Arab history. The few states in the region that have provided basing facilities for the U.S. may then have to rethink their policies, taking into account the mood on the Arab street.

Maliki claimed that the agreement would end the presence of all foreign troops on Iraqi soil by the end of 2011. The U.S. currently has 1,47,000 troops in Iraq and its position is that they will stay in Iraq until conditions allow a withdrawal. This, in effect, means giving U.S. troops carte blanche to stay on indefinitely. Washington would not like to see its war for oil end in failure.

Besides, Iraq lacks an effective air force, and the U.S. is no doubt hoping that the puppet government in Baghdad will have no other recourse than to ask it for help to support Iraqi ground units after 2011.

The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials found the language in the draft agreement vague enough to ensure U.S. control in all circumstances. The Iraqi public and even the Shia bloc supporting Maliki in Parliament were not fooled by his assertions about the deal. Maliki had assured Bush that the deal would be passed and, earlier in the year, the two leaders had even signed a declaration of principles outlining a future U.S. military presence in Iraq. The declaration had set a deadline of July 31, 2009, for the signing of the agreement.

In a clear rebuff to the Prime Minister, the ruling Shia bloc in the Iraqi Parliament conveyed that it needed more time to discuss the draft. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), on whose support the Prime Minister survives, said there were several points in the draft agreement that need more time for discussion, dialogue and amendments. The respected Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has already signalled his opposition to the proposed deal.

Malikis predecessor as Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, said a long-term security agreement with the U.S. was detrimental to the interests of Iraq. He added that countries that had signed similar agreements were still suffering the consequences.

Within the shadow of continuous defeats that the U.S. is facing in the region, and within the current economic crisis, the U.S. will not be able to impose its views on Iraq, he told the media in the third week of October.

Radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr spewed fire and brimstone at the proposed agreement. On October 18, his supporters staged a rally in Baghdad against the proposal; it was one of the biggest demonstrations in recent times in the capital. Sadr, in a statement read out on his behalf, condemned the proposed security pact as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. occupation forces. Sadr said anybody who claimed the agreement would end the occupation of our land or tells you that it restores Iraqi sovereignty is a liar.

Under pressure from all sides, including his own Dawa Party, Maliki pledged to get parliamentary approval before presenting the accord to the Iraqi Parliament. Initially, both Maliki and Bush had said that the agreement was not subject to parliamentary or congressional oversight. It was Ayatollah Ali Sistani who first insisted on bringing the Iraqi Parliament into the picture. From all available indications, Parliament is unlikely to accede to the draft agreement.

Maliki told the media that if Parliament refused to oblige, he would be left with no choice but to request for the extension of the U.N. mandate. If that happens, according to international law, Iraqi law and American law, the U.S. forces will be confined to their bases and have to withdraw from Iraq, the Iraqi Prime Minister told the British daily The Times recently. U.S. officials agreed with Malikis assessment that the failure to sign an agreement would prohibit U.S. troops from conducting combat operations in Iraq.

In the third week of October, Washington suffered another setback. The Iraqi Cabinet demanded more changes in the draft agreement. According to reports, the Cabinet wants the Bush administration to set a firm date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said there is no way the deal could be approved before the U.S. presidential elections on November 4. Zebari, a Kurd, is a supporter of the deal. He had earlier called on all parties to muster enough courage to support the deal, claiming that it was good for Iraq.

Top Bush administration officials have shown their exasperation regarding the developments in Iraq. The Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said time was running out for Iraq to approve a bilateral agreement to extend the stay of U.S. troops in the country. Admiral Mullen told the media that he was increasingly concerned about the sharp criticism within Iraq about the text of the agreement. He said the Iraqi security agencies would not be able to cope with the situation inside the country without help from the U.S.

Admiral Mullen tried to blame Iran for the stalemate on the SOFA. The Iranians are working very hard to ensure that this does not pass, he said. The U.S. has alleged that Teheran is clandestinely channelling funds to win over wavering Iraqi legislators in order to scuttle the agreement. The U.S. security forces also announced recently the arrest of a senior Iraqi military officer on the charge of disbursing funds from Iran to groups opposed to the occupation.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates warned of dramatic consequences if the security draft were not ratified. He confirmed that there was great reluctance in the U.S. to incorporate the changes demanded by the Iraqi government in the draft agreement.

Washington has still not given up on Iraq. The U.S. military, according to reports in the U.S. media, is planning a large public relations exercise over the next three years to help build robust and positive relations with the people of Iraq and to assist the Iraqi people in forming a new government. The Bush administration has earmarked $15 million annually for the project. This is in addition to the U.S. militarys $100 million-a-year strategic communications operation aimed at engaging and inspiring the Iraqi population to support U.S. policies.

Robert Naiman, Senior Policy Analyst of the U.S. think tank Just Foreign Policy, is of the opinion that the new money sanctioned by Washington could be better used to estimate the number of Iraqis killed since the U.S. invasion. Just Foreign Policy estimates, on the basis of recent studies, put the number at over a million.

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