The signing of a long-term security agreement between the US and Iraq has been contentiously debated within Iraq. The status of forces agreement (or SOFA) is a proposed deal between the US and Iraq that is designed to establish the principles for a continued US military presence in Iraq beyond the expiration of the UN mandate at the end of 2008. Among the most debated points in the deal are the number and location of US bases, the legal status of US troops and private contractors, and the jurisdictions and freedom of US military to carry out counterterrorism operations and arrests without consulting the Iraqi government.
Any attempt to understand the diverging positions of the various Iraqi political groups would be met by a striking lack of information over where the political players in Iraq stand. This should not come as a surprise to many, as details of the negotiations are rarely shared beyond the closed circle of the executive branches in Washington and Baghdad. US Representative Bill Delahut, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, recently said lawmakers in both countries are “in the dark” over the negotiations. Delahut complained that “Congress has received, to be polite, minimal information from the Bush administration on the agreement” and hoped that his Iraqi counterparts could provide updates to Congress.
Despite the lack of shared information, it is clear that Iraqi political groups exhibit different levels of acceptance and rejection for the idea as a whole and for certain declared parts of the deal.
So far, uncompromising rejection of any security agreement has come from only two groups – the Sadr movement and the shrinking Association of Muslim scholars. Muqtada al Sadr has called for, and organized, weekly protests against the agreement, often after Friday sermons. Yet, despite the controversial topic and the opportune timing of the protests, support for the cause has been limited. Earlier crowds are estimated to be in the thousands. The most recent public protest in Karbala was, according to The Associated Press, attended by “hundreds.” Protests in Sadr City, the bastion of the Mahdi Army, drew 1,500 protesters last Friday.
The Association of Muslim Scholars – a group of Sunni clerics who used to be close to the former regime and have been sympathetic to al Qaeda in Iraq – has only issued a few statements condemning the deal. The group’s most recent condemnation of the deal is two weeks old and is consistent with the association’s tradition of anti-US rhetoric:
“This agreement is about no more than the military, economic and cultural hegemony of the American occupation, which they want to impose on the Iraqi people through permitting prolonged presence of the occupation on Mesopotamia under a new name and a false cover of legitimacy.” Despite the anti-American propaganda, the association has not managed to coordinate public protests because of the dramatic change in attitude among Sunni Iraqis who have largely chose to ally themselves with the US instead of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Other groups are appealing to the US to delay the negotiations, most likely in the hope that a different American administration would abandon the deal altogether. Last week, two members of the Iraqi Parliament, Khalaf Ilayan, a leader of one of the three components of the Accord Front, and Nadeem Jabiri of the Islamic Fadheela Party, visited the US to address the US Congress, where they argued that the timing of the deal is not in Iraq’s best interests. Jabiri built his argument on the premise that the Iraqi government does not enjoy enough sovereignty in the first place to delegate some sovereign control to the US:
“The Iraqi government right now still does not have full rein of its sovereignty because of the thousands of foreign troops now on its land. And perhaps the Iraqi government does not have yet sufficient tools to run its own internal affairs. Therefore I ask the American government not to embarrass the Iraqi government (by) putting it in a difficult situation with this agreement.”
Ilayan, on the other hand, only said that “the countries should wait until the next US administration takes over next year,” but did not specify why. Ilayan is not famous for his wits among those who know him, and he is the only Accord Front leader who still harbors deep skepticism of US presence and the democratic process in Iraq. He occasionally makes threats to resume armed conflict with US troops and the Iraqi government.
The remaining factions of the Accord Front remain split over whether to accept or reject a security agreement with the US. Adnan Duleimi, the second of the three leaders of the Front, has made clear that he is absolutely in favor of the deal. “This treaty will protect Iraq,” he said in an earlier statement to the press, indicating that ensuring the long-term presence of the US military in Iraq is the only guarantee against future Iranian aggression.
Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi, the leader of the Islamic Party (the third and most powerful member of the Accord Front), voiced his objections to parts of the deal that he felt would “undermine Iraq’s sovereignty.” Abdul Karim Samarra’ie, a senior member of the Islamic Party and the deputy chief of the security and defense committee in the parliament, offered a few hints as to why the recent draft was rejected and made suggestions to make it acceptable to the parliament. The suggestions included:
• The deal does not contradict the concept of sovereignty and that it states that Iraq gets full independence.
• The ultimate outcome of the deal is the withdrawal of foreign troops by setting a timetable.
• The deal should be approved by the parliaments of both countries.
• Iraq should have the right to unilaterally make changes to, or withdraw from, the agreement if deemed necessary in the future.
• The US use its clout in the United Nations Security Council to relieve Iraq from the Chapter 7 restrictions currently implemented under the UN Charter.
• There is immunity for Iraqi funds in foreign banks after Iraq is relieved from the restrictions of Chapter 7.
The remaining positions in the Iraqi Parliament can be summarized as follows:
• Prime Minister Maliki (and his branch of the Da’awa Party): Maliki understands the need for an arrangement that guarantees US support for his government. As the leader of a political party that does not possess a significant armed wing, he appears to realize that maintaining long-term US military presence in Iraq is essential for protecting a peaceful political process in which he and his party can compete with others. Despite his open support, Maliki announced on June 13 that the negotiations had reached an impasse, but stressed that talks will continue until an agreement that satisfies both sides is reached: “The first drafts presented left us at a dead end and deadlock. So, we abandoned these first drafts. The negotiations will continue with new ideas until the sides reach a formula that preserves Iraq’s sovereignty.”
Maliki is also under pressure to maintain an image of a statesman, and not of a pushover. Perhaps this concern is behind his sudden change of tone. “We can’t extend the US forces permission to arrest Iraqis or to undertake terror fighting in an independent way, or to keep Iraqi skies and waters open for themselves whenever they want,” Maliki said. “One of the important issues that the US is asking for is immunity for its soldiers and those contracting with it. We reject this totally.”
• The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), led by Abdul Aziz Hakim: The position of SIIC is perhaps the most difficult to discern. Being close allies of both Iran and the US, the SIIC is walking a tightrope, as its members are very keen, more than any other group, not to anger either ally. Jalal ad Din Saghier, a senior member of the SIIC and its top member of parliament, told state-owned Al Sabaah as a member of the negotiating team that “President Bush has shown more understanding for Iraq’s demands than the members of the American negotiating team.” He added that Bush “promised the government to tell the [American] negotiating team to change their ways.” Humam Hammoudi, another senior SIIC member also told Al Sabaah that “there’s a number of subtle complicated issues around which there’s national consensus to reject. [T]he negotiators recently heard that the high ceiling for American demands has been lowered but there are still issues that somewhat stir national sensitivities and require more talks.”
The SIIC, however, does see room for compromise. Hameed Mu’alla, another SIIC member, told Radio Sawa that he was glad President Bush said his administration does not want permanent bases in Iraq: “This is a positive reassuring signal. This is the best way the negotiations should be. [W]e’re going in the right direction,” Mu’alla said. Based on these statements, we can predict that the SIIC wants a deal to be made, but only after it is relieved of any privileges for the US that might be threatening to Iran or to its dream of having a state its own in central and southern Iraq.
• Ahmed Chalabi: While Chalabi does not occupy a seat in the parliament, he is still an influential figure, especially in the background of Shiite politics. On June 12, he vocally attacked the deal and demanded that its details be revealed:
“Some articles in the deal, as we heard of, take away Iraq’s sovereignty and put an end to the national choice in independence. Among these points is arresting Iraqis by US troops outside the frame of Iraqi laws and constitution and immunity to US troops, their allies and contractors; among the latter are those who killed Iraqis at the Nisoor Square [Blackwater incident].”
• Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and his own branch of the Da’awa Party: During a press conference to announce the formation of his new political movement, Jaafari declared that the deal is not in Iraq’s best interests and it threatens its neighbors.
• Kurdish Parties, the KDP of Masoud Barazani and PUK of President Talabani: Iraqi Kurds consider themselves natural allies of the US and have often said proudly that they are America’s best friends in the Middle East. Whenever the issue of permanent US bases in Iraq surfaced, Kurdish leaders would step forward and issue statement of support such as, “if Iraq’s Arabs don’t want permanent American bases then Kurdistan would gladly host these bases.” The same offer was recently reiterated by parliament member Mahmoud Othman, who said that the government of Kurdistan would not mind hosting permanent American bases in the region.
Prior to Maliki’s announcement that negotiations were deadlocked, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the member of the Kurdish political scene closest to the negotiations, “stressed the need to complete the long-term agreement with the United States before the end of July so that Iraq does not become a divisive issue in the American elections and in order to preserve what has been achieved.” Zebari added that the Americans have been flexible in resolving the dispute over immunity for private contractors, and the main issue being debated is that of arresting Iraqis suspected of perpetrating acts of terror. As to the possible number and location of permanent US bases in the country, Zebari proposed that the bases be established in Basrah, Nineveh, Karbala, and Anbar provinces.