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Iraq-US Security Deal Signed Off by al-Maliki

On Sunday, Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki signed off on the latest draft of the status of forces agreement (SOFA) that outlines the legal terms under which US military forces may operate within Iraq.

This deal came about after months of back forth negotiations between the US and Iraqi government, as well as between both of these government and political influential Iraqi factions. In great part, Iraq’s apprehension, both within al-Maliki’s government and outside of it, was focused on the recognition of actual as opposed to cosmetic state sovereignty. There’s a lot of disagreement on whether al-Maliki has actually achieved this in the latest draft of the SOFA.

The SOFA draft was signed by the prime minister, his two deputies, and the cabinet ministers. Juan Cole, an expert on Middle East politics, writes at Informed Comment:

Out of 36 cabinet members, 28 were present for Sunday’s vote (a lot of Iraqi politicians actually live in Amman or London because of the poor security situation). Of the 28, 27 voted in favor.

Following this, debates will be held in Iraq’s parliament, which must then put it to a vote on 24 November. The parliament can only vote yes or no, it cannot modify the agreement. There’s a lot of speculation on whether the motion will pass through Iraq’s 275 seat parliament.

al-Maliki’s political bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, has 128 seats. They will likely vote yes. The main Kurdish party, the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan, has 53 seats. The Kurds are in favour of US military presence and will almost certainly vote yes. Together, these blocs can easily pass the threshold required for a simple majority.

There has been some discussion within parliament regarding what is required to pass the motion. Juan Cole again:

There is a dispute among Iraqi parliamentarians as to whether the agreement can be passed by a simple majority (i.e. 51% of those MPs present, assuming there is a quorum) or by a supermajority of 2/3s. Some are saying that they should pass legislation specifying which it is. The al-Maliki government maintains that this issue is decided by the president.

The agreement has not been officially published in full though government spokespeople have announced key points of the agreement. These points are:

– US troops to withdraw from urban areas by 30 June 2009. I imagine this means they would have to withdraw to the 50 US bases maintained throughout the country and then operate out of there when they feel the need to go out on missions.

– US troops to pull out of Iraq by 31 December 2011. The exact meaning of this is contested since the US is supposed to retain military ‘advisers’ and supervisors to the Iraq military, Ministries of Defence and the Interior, and they’re to have a 10 year mandate to guarantee Iraqi security.

– Iraqi law to have limited jurisdiction over US troops and contractors. What this seems to mean is that Iraqi law applies to US troops involved in alleged criminal acts as long as they’re off base and off duty. The contention here is that the US will pretty much never designate its troops off duty and it will become actually near impossible to try US troops under this clause. An example of similar concerns coming true is evident in the US status of forces agreement with Japan. An article in the journal Japan Focus illustrates this quite clearly (recommended reading).

– US supervisors will be attached to the key Ministries of Defence and Interior.

– The US can arrest any Iraqi for security reasons.

– The US will maintain control of Iraqi airspace.

Iran’s Fars News Agency claims to have a version of the SOFA text on its website.

Sami Moubayed writes in the Asia Times that:

Deputy Prime Minister Barhan Saleh said the Americans had threatened to freeze no less than US$50 billion worth of Iraqi hard currency, and keep all of its monetary debts to the US if an agreement was not signed before December, the date that the United Nations mandate for the American presence in Iraq expires.

Opposition within Iraq to the agreement as signed is widespread.

Popular opinion is against the agreement within Iraq’s majority Arab population. The Kurdish population bucks this trend by being in great part in favour of the agreement. Kurdish leaders tried to negotiate behind closed doors for some amendments, mainly concerned that the agreement recognized the primacy of the central government. They were concerned that a strong central government would limit their gains, independence, and their ability to expand beyond the current borders of the offically recognized Kurdistan Regional Government.

Muqtada al-Sadr, whose parliamentary bloc has 30 seats, is strongly opposed to the agreement and calls for an immediate withdrawal of US troops. He has called for widespread public action and demonstrations inside and outside Iraq to scuttle the deal and has threatened to activate his militias to fight against US troops if the SOFA becomes operational.

Pepe Escobar writes in the Asia Times:

So what will the Sadrists do in practice? Before the approval Muqtada, in a statement read out by his spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi at the Kufa mosque, said, “If the American forces remain, I will reinforce the resisters, especially the brigades subsumed under the banner of the Judgment Day,” Muqtada rallied all these “Bands of the Eternal Truth” to “enlist behind this mujahid banner”. This Sadrist version of special forces would only attack American forces, and not the Iraqi military (controlled by the Maliki government).

Escobar again:

Muqtada is in a difficult position. He has to confront the problem that strategically Tehran subscribes to not attacking US troops as the best way for the Americans to eventually leave. And Muqtada at the moment is studying in Qom, the spiritual capital of Iran – he could hardly afford to antagonize his hosts.

The suspicion that Iran seeks non-violent means of getting the US to withdraw are supported by the apparent change of tactic made by one of Iraq’s most powerful political parties, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). The party and its leader has some strong ties to Iran. It’s leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has become less critical of the agreement and seems ready to allow for it to pass through parliament.

The top Shia religious leader within Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, may still serve to spoil the agreement as it stands. He was instrumental in forging an alliance that forced the US to accept that elections take place as soon as possible following the US invasion of the country. People close to Sistani have expressed their belief that Sistani is very worried about what the SOFA means for Iraq and that he may “directly intervene” if deemed necessary.

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