Tag Archives: US Withdrawal

U.S.withdrawal: End or beginning of Iraq?

As the last convoy of US troops trickled over the desertous southern-Iraqi border, the move was met with contrasting emotions, much like the overall US experience little shy of 9 years.

For many in Iraq, the image of seeing their “occupiers” leave became a long-time nationalist dream.  Fast forward 9 years, 4500 lost lives and an expenditure fast approaching trillion dollar that has crippled the US foreign policy image and dented the US economy, the US were arguably as keen to leave as they were to enter.

Many placed direct blame on much of the unfolding crisis over the years in Iraq on America but as the future will prove the US is not responsible for every Iraqi misfortune and that perhaps America did well to stave off so many obstacles.

The downfall of Saddam and subsequent invasion of Iraq only opened a hornets nest, the nest was placated many decades before with the artificial creation of Iraq. The lid was simply held firm by the iron grip of Saddam and once opened, the Americans struggled relentlessly to keep grip whilst under immense international spotlight.

It is time for the Iraqi political actors to take accountability and responsibility for the current situation in Iraq. Iraq has had a sovereign government for many years, has now held two national elections, implemented a national constitution and has a large security force at its disposal that has been in practical control of the streets long before the US withdrawal.

History will prove that America never really got the credit it deserved. It made huge sacrifices whilst Iraqi politicians have constantly failed to deliver. It pulled Iraq from the brink of all-out sectarian war in 2007 with the promise of thousands of more troops as part of the surge strategy but the Iraqi leaders again failed to keep their promises and their end of the bargain.

It is by no means to say that the US adventure in Iraq should be marked as a shining glory. The two Washington administrations, particularly that of George W. Bush, will be the first to admit that Iraq was an achilles heel and in the case of Bush the hammer blow to the credibility of the his tenure. In hindsight, the US is more than likely to have done things differently and will have a bitter taste in their mouths as some events backfired.

However, as the old saying goes, you can take a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Iraq has had many historical milestones and achievements but has successfully failed to capitalise on any positive motions created.

The bottom line is that deep sectarianism, a clear ethnic divide and above all profound historical mistrust and animosity have severely handicapped any chance of national reconciliation and genuine progression in Iraq.

As soon as the US forces formally withdrew, fierce debate ensued about the legacy that they left behind. One thing for sure is that the positive picture of the current climate in Iraq that the US was hoping to promote did not take long to shatter.

A day later, Iraq become embroiled in a new sectarian and political crisis as an arrest warrant was issued for Iraq”s Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi and a number of other Sunni figures, on terror related charges. This is in addition to controversy around Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak whose criticism of Maliki”s dictatorial tendencies left him clinging on to his position as Maliki sought a vote of no confidence against him.

People have warned about the fragility of the current coalition, however, the coalition has been anything but stable and harmonious since its much delayed inception. Over a year later and key ministries still remain in so-called temporary hands. Iyyad Allawi, the head of al-Iraqiya, has had an ongoing political rift and escalating war of words with Maliki accusing him of monopolisation of power and reneging on the Erbil agreement.

As the current crisis has escalated, an already bewildered al-Iraqiya decided to boycott parliament. Renew sectarian bloodshed coupled with a collapse of the current government may place Iraq in a point of no return and without a bail-out from the US this time around.

It is easy to overlook that Sunni Sahwa councils were a significant factor in the decline of violence and they still remain a localised Sunni tool rather than a national possession. Without a balanced security apparatus, Iraq will have three different armies guarding each of the major factions of Iraq.

The Sunni-Shiite power struggle is also exhibited in the increasing ploy of largely Sunni provinces to manipulate constitutional clauses and seek regional autonomy to place Maliki in a difficult bargaining corner and to safeguard their powerbases.

While much of Iraq has been stuck in a rut, Kurdistan has enjoyed unprecedented progression much to the regular dismay than applaud from Baghdad. More than any other group, the Kurds were most disappointed by the US exit and left them feeling anxious at hostile parties around them.

Renewed sectarianism and friction in Baghdad will see the Kurds embroiled in a fresh nightmare that will only blight the attraction and evolvement of the region. Furthermore, the Kurds have been so busy helping construct successive governments in Baghdad and then help papering over the cracks that they have seemingly overlooked that Baghdad has seldom kept their end of the bargain and has gotten away without any real political repercussions.

Kurdistan has waited for almost a decade for the return of Kirkuk and disputed territories and has waited many years for key laws such as a national hydrocarbon law to be adopted. In reality, unless Kurdistan takes matters into their own hands and pushes Baghdad in no uncertain terms, they will wait yet another decade for the return of their lands.

As kingmakers, Kurds have taken a tough-line position in negotiations over successive government formations, while Baghdad has dragged their heels in the commitments they have agreed to as part of the initial wooing of Kurdish blocs.

Just as the jostling of power between Sunni and Shiites will come to the boil at some point, especially if the proviso of parliament and politics is seen as an insufficient forum, then the increasing bitter relationship between Erbil and Baghdad will take similar suit if it indefinitely becomes stuck in a detrimental cycle.

While much of how the proceedings play out is in the hands of the Iraqi leaders, the difficulties already inherent are only exasperated by the influence of neighbouring countries. As the US formally withdraws, the battle for influence in Iraq will only heighten.

The Shiite-led government of al-Maliki openly sways towards Tehran and has defended the Allawite and fellow Shiite Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, while most of the Arab world has turned increasingly against him. All the while, Sunni neighbours such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia looks anxiously at the alliances formed by Baghdad.

As the Middle East has evolved greatly as a result of the Arab Spring, Iraq will need to greatly alter the relations with its neighbours.

At the same time, Kurdistan which is already under great constraints due to the weary eye of its neighbours, strives for good relations with all sides and must not rely on the sentiments of Baghdad in achieving its nationalist ambitions.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

The mutual necessity of extending the US stay in Iraq

Owed to the great commotion surrounding the second Gulf war and the subsequent public fall-out, the US liberation of Iraq may always be remembered as a dark moment of US foreign policy akin to Vietnam. However, in the midst of the hostilities, violence, squabbling amongst Iraqi factions and stumbling steps towards democracy, the significance of theUSinvasion is often forgotten.

As the US suffered a tainted foreign policy image and a general deterioration of perception amongst the Muslim community whilst becoming vilified for its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is easy to paper over the failings, deep-rooted animosity amongst Iraq’s socio-ethnic patchwork and misdealing and underperformance by successive Iraqi governments as US errors of judgment.

Iraq became an Achilles heel of George W. Bush and a great handicap for the US at home and abroad and both politically and economically. However, as the months wind down towards the end of 2011, where the remaining 45,000 or so US troops are set to withdraw from Iraq as part of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), there are increasing voices within the Iraqi political spectrum calling for an extension of this deadline, realising the stability that the US presence provides and the fragile nature of Iraq.

Whilst Iraq’s transition from brutal dictatorship to democracy has not been perfect, it is nevertheless a remarkable milestone. Iraq has made great strides in recent years particularly in the field of security but reconciliation has been as difficult as ever owed to the fragmented Iraqi socio-ethnic mosaic and the entrenched mistrust amongst disparate groups that has made the sharing of the Iraqi cake all that more difficult.

It is often overlooked that not only did the current government formation set a world record but that the cabinet is still not formally concluded months after the deadlock to form government was broken. Whilst politicians entered the agreement through gritted teeth and under a cloud of compromise there are growing signs of fractures amongst the current alliance. Simply put Iraqi politicians have spent more time squabbling within the political chambers than delivering services to the people on the streets.

Ayad Allawi of Al-Iraqiya, who won the majority vote at the elections, has made a number of threats to leave government and has been critical of been treated “not as a partner but as a participant.” Allawi refused to take the post as the head of National Council for Strategic Policy owed to disputes with Nouri al-Maliki around powers that he would be afforded, with al-Iraqiya demanding more than just symbolic posts with no real power but with al-Maliki unwilling to relinquish his executive decision making status.

The current predicament in Baghdad is overshadowed with a number of disputes with the KRG which have festered over many years through constant foot-dragging, side-stepping and half-hearted approach to resolution from Baghdad.

Kirkuk continues to be at the top of the contentious issues over disputed territories. In spite of a clear road map for the resolution of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, it has been continuously put on the shelf and the constitutional articles have not been implemented. Furthermore, althoughKirkukwas a key condition ahead of the agreement of Kurdistan parties to back a new coalition in Baghdad, in reality practical steps have not been undertaken to finally diffuse this long-time ticking time-bomb.

Devastating bombings in recent weeks have highlighted the tentative nature of Kirkuk. Al-Qaeda and insurgent groups continue to try and ignite ethnic strife and fuel animosity amongst the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens. The sensitive climate was further highlighted with the Arab uproar when Kurdish Peshmerga forces were deployed to Kirkuk in March under the pretext of protecting the Kurdish inhabitants ahead of mass protests that were organised. Whilst the situation was quickly diffused, it showed how sentiments can explode at any time and where ethnic loyalties clearly lie.

The US has highlighted Kirkuk as biggest danger toIraq’s stability post withdrawal. Friction between the Erbil andBaghdad, fragile coalitions, a loose national partnership and with questions around the effectiveness and logistical readiness of the Iraqi security apparatus, this has bolstered the case for a US stay beyond 2011.

The Kurdish support for such long-termUSpresence and indeed permanent bases inKurdistanis nothing new and where recently reaffirmed by Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

However, al-Maliki’s openness to extending the US stay is a sign of the importance most Iraqi’s increasingly pin to an extended US presence on their soil. Officially, al-Maliki has stated that he will proceed with national dialogue with rival blocs to reach consensus on extending the SOFA agreement, but almost certainly secret talks have been ongoing behind the scenes for several months with US military officials.

The top officer of the Iraqi army, General Babaker Zebari, previously stated that US forces will be needed until 2020.

Clearly, after the enormous sacrifices in preserving a stable Iraq and indeed a stable Middle east, the US will not want to walk away all too easily.Iraq was never a short-term project, regardless of the presence of troops on the ground. Influence and interest in a region or country is not just about the number of troops, the web of intelligence and entanglement is much deeper. The US will want to be seen to respect Iraqi sovereignty from a public perspective but in the background will be pressuring to maintain a strong hand in the direction of the Iraqi government, defeat of radical forces and ensuring equilibrium in the region not least because ofIran.

US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates has openly admitted that other than maintaining stability inIraq, the priority for troop extension is to send a strong warning toIranthat the US will not pull out of the Middle East. Iranian and to a lesser extent  Turkish and other Sunni Arab meddling in Iraq is already a key handicap for reconciliation and any hasty US withdrawal when the Iraqi project is clearly not complete will only enlarge the ethnic and sectarian divide and increase interference by neighbouring countries.

Iranian influence on Baghdad is evident and has somewhat contributed to the divided political lines. The US hand in Iraq, is not just designed to keep the Iranians at bay in Baghdad, but to ensure Iranians are hampered in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and beyond.

It is somewhat unsurprising that the main group who vehemently oppose US presence is the pro-Iranian group of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who has threatened to recommence violence if US forces stay beyond the deadline.

Aside from providing critical security over the years, Washington has had an instrumental hand in forcing the Iraqi hand to end a number of political impasses. In fact many symbolic agreements where only achieved with frantic American jockeying in the background.

It is increasingly acknowledged that the same mediation will be needed to ensure political stability inIraq, especially if the current government breaks down. Whilst progress has been achieved at a painstaking pace, it can unravel and unwind at a much faster pace. Progress inIraqis very much reversible.

Keeping US troops in Iraq will not only have repercussions in Iraq. It will also highlight a major u-turn for US President Barack Obama, whose key election pledge was to withdraw forces fromIraqas quickly as possible.

The top priority of the US should no longer be security but ensuring the establishment of a strong political and economic foundation. Pushing for the implementation of roadmaps for resolving disputed territories, sharing of natural resources, affective power sharing formula and bridging sectarian divides is the only long-term answer.

The US needs to apply pressure to finally force the Kirkuk issue and seek long-term resolutions to the increasing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad. Too many critical differences have been too often brushed under the political rug for the sake of short-term gains at the time.

It must not be forgotten that the significant US surge strategy was to only provide Iraqis with “breathing space” to reconcile their difference and find political concord. However, this was far from achieved with many of the measurements set by the US all those years ago still not met.

Without resolving the true underlining issues that continue to plague Iraq and the establishment of am affective power-sharing system via loose federations, US presence for decades more will not solve core issues.

 While the US was a long-time scapegoat for the Iraqi downward spiral, it is time for Iraqi politicians to shoulder the responsibility of tackling corruption, unemployment and security and build rebuild their house for the future.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

Will Iraq experience ‘withdrawal symptoms’

A sight of departing US forces was a long-time dream for sections of the Iraqi population opposed directly and indirectly to the American occupation. However, as the remaining US combat forces trickle over the desertous border, ahead of the 31st August deadline as per their strategic agreement with Baghdad, what kind of an Iraq will they be leaving behind?

Back in April 2003 amidst short-lived euphoria, the ambition and vision for the new Iraq was bold and inspiring. Not only did the US overthrow a brutal dictator but aimed to induce a sense of western values and democracy to Iraq that at the same time would serve as a model for the greater Middle East. 

Seven battle-hardened years later with over 4,400 troops dead, 30,000 wounded and not to mention war costs that now run into trillions of dollars, the Iraqi adventure will always remain a blot on US foreign policy and one that will symbolise the contentious tenure of George W. Bush.

While the US was seemingly bogged in a quagmire and stuck in a vicious cycle between insurgents on the street and bickering politicians in parliament, the situation in Iraq was averted from a total failure with Iraq finally turning a corner, the appeal of sectarianism slowly waning and security improving dramatically.

However, the situation in Iraq is by no means irreversible and the crunch period for the stability and future of Iraq is yet to be seen. No better way sums up the continual frailties that remain than the current circumstances that encompass the US withdrawal.

Almost six months after the milestone national elections that was hoped to foster the first genuine post-war national government, Iraqis still bicker on the choice of prime minister lest forming a new government to deal with the decisive issues that loiter on the parliamentary shelf.

While Iraq may not necessarily make the front pages of the news as it used to, this shouldn’t mask the fact that Iraq is still tentative and has great strides to make. As such, even as Washington can breathe a sigh of relief after almost a decade of two brutal wars that stretched even the might of the world’s greatest army to its very limits, Iraq is far from a “job done”.

While certain circles have been all too frequently keen to highlight US deficiencies in Iraq, Iraqi politicians must take a lion share of the blame for protracted progress and slow reconciliation. The US is hardly responsible for every Iraqi misfortune and the controversy over the US occupation merely masked key issues on the ground that was tapered for decades by totalitarian rule.

The huge US presence particularly in the aftermath of the surge campaign was designed to offer Iraqis crucial “breathing space” that was hoped to cement political progress. However, much of the benchmarks set by the US failed to be achieved by the Iraqi government.

Even as Baghdad has progressively moved towards full sovereignty in recent years and become more confident to stand on its own feet, the same fundamental handicaps continued to undermine the Iraqi mission.

Iraq is a disparate nation with a deep history of mistrust amongst its ethnic and sectarian mosaic. Too often direct US influence in the Iraqi political chambers allowed key legislation and government forming to ensue. More strikingly, whilst progress and milestones were often hailed over the years to showcase Iraqi path to success, many achievements could only be ushered by brushing key political hot-potatoes under the political rug.

For example, seven years later, enmity and ideological divides on the running of the country plague relationships between Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite camps. The Iraqi oil industry, which on paper has the power to propel Iraq to great economic heights, continues to linger behind with a lack of a census amongst groups on a true way to share its immense oil wealth.

Years after the onset of the constitution, the implementation of key terms such as article 140 continues to gather dust. While for many years, the spotlight was on the Sunni-Shiite showdown resulting in almost all out civil war, the strategic differences between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad were not as relevant. However, one of the greatest dangers that continue to gather pace is the simmering tension in the disputed border regions in the north, particularly in Kirkuk.

Although, relatively calm for now, the growing issue is yet to bear its full fruit owed to years of foot-dragging in resolving key standoffs between Arabs and Kurds.

In reality, the US has invested too many lives, money and foreign policy to wave good bye just yet. Far from the end of an era, the presence of 50,000 full armed US soldiers is hardly a meagre figure. The US with its eyes on the growing menace of Iran and its ongoing war in Afghanistan, can not afford an Iraq that slips into deeper infighting and insurgency and drags the rest of the Middle East down with it.

In essence from the 1st September 2010 under its new label of Operation New Dawn, all that may be happening is a rebranding of the American escapade. Remaining “non-combat” troops have the legal jurisdiction to continue counter-terrorism operations, assists Iraqi forces and act in self defence.

Owed to the fractured nature of the state, Iraqis are very much susceptible to foreign meddling and without a strong government in Baghdad Iraq may well play a role of a client state for neighbouring countries in the years to come. Iran continues to exert strong influence on Shiite parties, Turkey continues to build and strengthen its ties with Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan observe diligently to ensure that Sunni interests do not succumb to a new wave of Shiite revolutionaries on their eastern borders.

Political frustrations aside, security in Iraq is hardly clean-cut. One only has to point to the notion that there are now “only” 50 or so deaths a week. That is still 50 lives too many that Iraqi families have to endure. Although, Iraqi forces numbering over 600,000 are formidable on paper, by their own admission they are not ready to assume full responsibility for all aspects of security without US assistance.

Furthermore, just where loyalties lie within the forces is open to question. Until the security forces broadly comprise all three groups, sentiments will be cautious to the effectiveness and impartiality of the forces.

Above all else, as at least a phase of the US adventure comes to a close, people have lost sight of the overall picture. The new Iraq and foreign actors must realise that a brutal dictator, who killed thousands of his own civilians with chemical weapons, launched deadly wars, drained national resources and repressed three quarters of the population was removed thanks to the US. Just ask the Kurds in north at their gratitude towards the Americans.

The new Iraq can in theory excel economically and strategically. However, as the US has come to terms over seven years, they can only push Iraqis so far, the rest of the journey only Iraqis can assume whilst Americans anxiously watch. Iraqis must start to look at key differences that continue to blight progress and realise only they can muster a new dawn. There is nothing the US can do but hope that their grand and costly excursion in Iraq comes to fruition.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Epoch Times, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Iraqi election law passes as hard task remains ahead


Whilst this election law is a prelude to US withdrawal, it does not necessarily signal the end of a tough road for Iraq

After weeks of protracted debates and intense political wrangling, the Iraqi election law was finally passed after elusive compromise was decisively reached on the hotly-contested province of Kirkuk.

Perhaps no other individual would have breathed a more literal sigh of relief than US Ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, who worked tirelessly running between the main Iraqi factions in the parliament chambers to ensure progress, while his compatriot and US Vice President, Joe Biden, probably had a frequent engaged-tone as he was tied on the phone to Iraqi leaders.

This important election law meant that Iraq could hold elections in 2010 (now scheduled for 21st January) notably under an open candidate list system as many figures had demanded. While Iraqis expressed relief and satisfaction, public hailing a compromise that has often been lacking in Iraq, for US it had far more significant short-term ramifications.

US pressure

Behind-the-scenes US pressure in Iraqi politics is hardly something new. On numerous occasions, political motions have been passed after direct exertion from the White House with the belated passing of the symbolic Iraqi constitution in 2005 as one such example.

However, this time around the passing of the election law held direct sway to US plans to withdraw all combat troops by August 2010.

Although agreement was finally reached, the much delayed manner of passing the law was an ominous signal of Iraqi appetite for reconciliation and collaboration.

Whilst democratic progress ensues on paper, the election law is another example of where fierce stalemates have been broken for sake of progress at the expense of brushing the real key issues under the political rug.

It is these flashpoints such the resolving the issue of disputed territories, the onset of a national hydrocarbon law and how much power federal regions should be afforded (namely that of the Kurds) that prompt the real health checks for the new Iraq.

Kirkuk dilemma

While compromise was struck over voting in Kirkuk, it doesn’t deal with the real issue of the long-term status of the city and the much-delayed implementation of article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.

Even as elections will go ahead in Kirkuk inline with the rest of the country, it is still conducted under a “special status”. Although, 2009 voter rolls will be used as demanded by Kurds, the results will essentially be provisional and subject to review if deemed that unusual fluctuations in the voting registrar were apparent.

Crucially, the terms and consequences of this proposed electoral review were vague. With Arabs still determined to ensure that Kirkuk does not fall into the hands of the Kurds, “officially” or otherwise, the election results may yet open another can of worms.

Although, Kirkuk is an Iraqi matter and certainly the most relevant litmus test of Iraqi unity and democracy, regional interference has been a major handicap in implementing constitutional articles. Some parties in negotiations over the election law may have used regional forces as a leverage to ensure Kirkuk status quo.

Fencing-off the Kirkuk conundrum

This leads to the critical issue of the long-term status of Kirkuk. While U.S envoy Hill was adamant that the election law agreement on Kirkuk would not be used as “a leg up” in negotiations over its future jurisdiction, in reality it is not so easy to fence-off the holding of elections in Kirkuk from the debate over the long-term status of Kirkuk.

If elections highlight a strong Kurdish majority then Arab and Turkmen parties may well use the voter review clause to dampen Kurdish gains with view to ensuring that any subsequent Kurdish claim on Kirkuk is not so clear-cut.

By the same token, inevitably a Kurdish majority in the January elections will simply highlight a certain Kurdish majority if any referendum is held in Kirkuk as per article 140. In other words, whilst Baghdad may dig its heels even further, the Kurds will see their legal overtures towards the oil-rich province add vital momentum.

Next phase of democracy

Regardless of any successful elections in January 2010, this will certainly not mark the end of friction between the Kurdish administration and Baghdad. The developments of the election law may be promising but the hard-work is all to do in 2010.

Although, the Kurds may well find themselves in the role of kingmakers again, the future makeup of alliances in the Iraqi National Assembly will make interesting analysis. With the Sunnis likely to turn out in much larger numbers this time around, political jockeying will be as delicate as ever.

The Kurds will choose there alliance wisely, likely forming a coalition with sides that may incline to succumb to their demands in return for gaining more power and influence in Baghdad. A stronger Sunni-Shiite bond capitalising on Arab nationalist sentiment at the expense of Kurdish aspirations can not be discounted. If such Arab unity can be established then tensions over Kirkuk may well increase to the next level.

Important milestones

As much as the election is an important milestone, it can only be termed in such a way as a means to an ends. With the crucial absence of agreed federal borders, dispute over how natural resources will be shared and long-term power balance in Baghdad and the security forces, the real milestones are yet to be achieved.

Add to the mix ubiquitous calls for amendments to the Iraqi constitution and the recipe for future strife is evident. While a one-off revision to the 2005 constitution is probable, how this will be administered is a massive test of how far Iraq has come since 2003 and possibly how far it will go in years to come.

Cross-faction agreement on changing constitutional articles will be difficult and any significant change at the expense of other parties is a dangerous prelude. Although, the formation of any review committee may well be based on the proportion of votes at the elections, such voting principles do not always hold water in Iraq.

Regardless of election results, sides will not succumb to the rule of the majority, so ironically compensatory seats in one form or another is an inevitable feature of democracy in Iraq. A good example is enticing the Sunni elite into the political makeup, although Sunnis form a minority in Iraq, they will still demand fundamental power and influence in Baghdad as well as within the security forces.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Iraqi withdrawal symptoms


As the continuous US adventure in Iraq enters yet another “new” dawn, the US can ill-afford to lose focus

Over the past six years or so, the US has have experienced many false dawns in their quest to attain success in Iraq. Many key milestones have been hailed in this time, in the hope that it would spark an elusive US exit strategy, but ominously Iraqi’s have too often failed to take real advantage.


Now it is hoped that the much hyped and celebrated US withdrawal from Iraqi towns and cities on June 30th 2009, would serve as one of the final “real” dawns of the new Iraq.

The withdrawal, as per Sofa agreement, was met with jubilation by Iraqis and subsequently declared a national holiday. While Iraqis rejoiced in public at the start of the end of a notorious occupation, behind closed doors in Baghdad and Washington, one couldn’t help but think that smiles in public were overshadowed with anxiety behind the scenes, particularly for the US.

After all, after so many years of sacrifice, lost lives and billions of dollars of investment that saw Iraq become a focal point of US foreign policy, the US can hardly just disregard or sidestep their Iraqi adventure. The US clearly has unfinished business in Iraq.

However, US President Barrack Obama has hardly kept his desire for a new stronger focus on the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan a secret, has consistently vowed for swift withdrawal and was opposed to the original invasion. This has fanned fears that the US is no longer focused on Iraq.

Biden’s calls for national reconciliation


The US has expressed their concern in recent days on the lack of political reconciliation and has openly urged Iraqis to make greater efforts. Public calls by US Vice President Jo Biden, the man charged with seeing out the Iraqi mission, for the need of more progress was rebuffed by Baghdad. The vice presidents comments came as he underwent a visit to Baghdad to strengthen diplomatic ties and push Iraqi leaders for greater political progress.

The response from Baghdad implied that they were unwilling to endorse US meddling in its internal affairs. The strong response from Baghdad, shows growing assertiveness from Iraqis as the assume the “real sovereignty” talked about in Washington and may be playing on the sentiments of the Iraq public ahead of January 30th general election, who are seemingly only too keen to see US forces depart, regardless of the demons that this may itself bring.

Al-Maliki’s office reaffirmed its commitment to the national reconciliation process. Al-Maliki had earlier stated that the countries had “entered a new phase” on the back of the US withdrawal.

In spite of Baghdad’s warning to its US counterparts about trying to influence internal Iraqi affairs, Biden suggested that the Iraqi leaders were “very anxious” to maintain strategic understanding and engagements with the US moving forward.

Obama’s message


Whilst hailing the significance of the withdrawal, Obama warned of “difficult days ahead” and once again reemphasised the importance of a “responsible” withdrawal. However, emphasise was equally placed on Iraqis new responsibility as they took control of their future. US combat divisions are due to withdraw from Iraq by September 2010 and all together from Iraq by the end of 2011.

In spite of public reassurance that the US had not lost focus, privately Biden gave the strongest indication yet that under their new “sovereignty”, the US was unlikely to come rushing back to keep peace if civil strife was to erupt in Iraq.

Biden has been a long-time advocate of federalism in Iraq, as a way of preserving peace and unity between Kurds, Sunni and Shiites, and it is somewhat unsurprising that he has focused on healing the national divide on his recent visit.

The end of the beginning


The beginning of the end for the US may well be the end of the beginning for the Iraqis. With the valuable cushion that the US has provided for so long, in spite of frequent criticism and backlash of their presence by Iraqis, ironically perhaps now as the US time in Iraq dwindles down, many Iraqis may now truly appreciate the relative if not forgotten comfort that the US has provided.

The US surge strategy was always a short-term measure designed to buy Iraqis time. It is ultimately down to the Iraqis to seek true compromise and build a new nation that can house such a contrasting array of views and ethnicities.

Regardless of the principles of democracy that now underpin the new Iraq, it is ultimately the true hunger of sides to settle their differences and end mistrust and animosity that will determine the future Iraq. This is easier said than done of course. Trying to keep an ethnic mosaic happy and working towards the notions of equality, are down to the individuals themselves and no amount of US military presence or political pushing can change that.

As the US have realised no amount of force or political pressure can make any side adopt any notion that they may not embrace at heart.

Key issues remain unresolved years after the advent of a new constitution and democratic elections. Growing discord between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over many fundamental issues such as oil production, federalism and disputed lands spell a clear long-term danger.

As we have seen with a rise in suicide bombings in recent weeks, the threat of terrorism and sectarian bloodshed are elements that can return to the stage ever so quickly. Too often long-term problems have been masked by short-term goals. An example of this are the Sunni Sawha councils, armed and founded by the US and a clear success story in the battle against al-Qaeda. If there demands are not satisfied, how long before they are keep onside?

The greater picture


Whilst the US may now provide added focus to Afghanistan, the US has to mindful of not needing to return to Iraq once they achieve a semblance of peace and unity in Afghanistan.

Issues and conflicts in the Middle East are delicately intertwined, and the US can ill afford to neglect the importance of the Iraqi domino in this puzzle. There is little in the Middle East that would have a greater ripple affect than instability and chaos in Iraq. The US has already underestimated the intricacy that is Iraq to its loss.

As future events will show, its unlikely that the US can simple afford to adopt a policy of “over to you now Iraqis” just yet.

As Obama’s speeches to the Muslim world have highlighted, however, the US is unwilling to put all its eggs in one basket. It needs the support of the greater Middle East in keeping the tentative and fragile peace. This is something that it simply can not do by itself.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Obama’s Tireless Quest to Reinvigorate Foreign Policy Results in Surprise Visit to Iraq

Obama’s frantic foreign diplomacy drive incorporated a surprise visit to Iraq. While the US can point to hope and their “enormous sacrifice”, progress and national reconciliation in Iraq has clearly a long way to go.

US President Barrack Obama’s whirlwind eight-day foreign tour, encompassing six countries, ended with a surprise visit to Iraq and his first visit to a war-zone as commander-in-chief.

Obama met with key Iraqi leaders including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdistan Region President Massaud Barzani. The meetings aimed to enforce US-Iraqi relations in what is a critical year for Iraq, as well as to showcase appreciation for the US forces based in the country.

The US adventure in Iraq, six years since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, has not come cheap. Whilst significant progress has been made in Iraq since 2003, the rewards are a scant consolation for the deep US involvement and the financial burden that George W. Bush in particular has paid in Iraq, with over 4000 US lives lost and over $600 billion dollars spent.

With the inauguration of Obama as president, this raised expectations that a new page can be turned in US foreign policy, where Iraq had become a symbol of its deficiencies and controversies.

Obama has made no secret of his desire to withdraw troops as soon as possible, alter the US mission in Iraq and also waste no time in realigning and leveraging US foreign policy and introduce a fresh impetus that is greatly needed to either mend or refresh ties with key global powers.

Perception of Obama in Iraq

Obama was generally well-received by Iraqis. Most Iraqis south of the Kurdistan border, prefer a speedy withdrawal of US forces and see Obama in a positive light compared to his predecessor.

The fact that Obama was against the Iraqi invasion from the outset and Iraq is deemed as Bush’s war, affords Obama an opportunity to revitalize Iraqi-U.S. ties.

Obama emphasized the need to transition to the Iraqis, after years of sacrifice and allow the Iraqis “to take responsibility for their country.”

Clearly, not only does prolonged US engagement play into the hands of insurgents and hard-line elements of the Iraqi landscape, the US can simply ill-afford to continue to watch Iraqis reconcile at a leisurely rate, where other fires in the US radar rage.

An unprecedented global economic crisis and a forgotten war in Afghanistan, as well as a US foreign policy vehicle that is in urgent need of repair, highlight the US need for all the partners it can get, let alone take ties with traditional allies for granted. Put simply, Iraq is no longer the “make or break” headache it once was, with the world ever changing over the past 6 years.

Clearly some elements such as the Sadrist bloc, favour only total US withdrawal and it came as no surprise when they attacked Obama’s visit as a “barefaced interference”

The end of the beginning for Iraq

As the US slowly plans the end of its Iraqi adventure, the work for Iraqis has just begun. 6 years of violence, sectarian feuds and lack of security, only veiled the fractured and deeply divided Iraqi social mosaic. Achieving true elusive national reconciliation is more than just achieving security and stability in the country.

Security and stability is just the bridge to national reconciliation, if there is indeed a strong deep-rooted desire for this concept amongst all the groups.

Many obstacles remain and many key issues remain unresolved. The US administration has clearly put a lot of hope that 2009 will form a strong platform for Iraqis to resolve key differences and promote a relative form of national harmony so desperately craved.

Much of this hope lies on the Iraqi general elections set for the end of this year, which promises to bring Sunnis firmly into the political arena, as well as revise coalitions and power-sharing.

However, how productive a platform the elections will serve depends much on what Baghdad can achieve in the remaining months leading up to the elections. If the track-record is anything to go by, then there will be a few optimists, with deep-rooted animosity and mistrust still at large.

The Iraqi hunger to implement constitutional articles such as article 140, adoption of a national hydrocarbon law and implement a system of governance that can appease all parties, is largely out of the hands of the US. However, this doesn’t mean that the dawn of the end of the US in Iraq, means that the US can be a by-stander in developments. If 2009 doesn’t become the all defining milestone in Iraq and broad violence in turn erupts, realization of the anticipated US withdrawal in August 2010 will be interesting indeed.

Obama urged Iraqi Prime Minister to quicken the reconciliation pace, a notion that the Bush administration have been pushing for years before, with the focus still largely on enticing minority Sunnis into the political fold as well as in to the predominantly Shiite based security forces.

Baghdad has often promised much when it comes to meeting US benchmarks but in essence has achieved insufficiently to foster real progress.

Meeting with Kurdistan Region Delegation

Obama also met with Kurdistan Region President Massaud Barzani to discuss a number of situations in Kurdistan Region and Iraq. Clearly, pressing agenda items include edgy relationships between KRG and Baghdad and assurances that the Obama administration will not neglect Kurdish ties at the expense of other alliances.

One of the looming dangers in Iraq is the increasing stand-off between Erbil and Baghdad. It is the firm duty of the US administration to ensure that bilateral ties are promoted between both sides and active steps are taken by the US to resolve fundamental differences between each side, particularly over disputed areas and jurisdiction of security forces, long before any reduction of forces.

While the US have so far chosen a more passive role in the disputes between the Kurds and Baghdad, pointing to the democratic apparatus in place to resolve such disputes, it is their duty to ensure that the disputes are indeed resolved via democratic principles and they do not leave Iraq in a perilous and tentative state, regardless of their commitments to withdraw from Iraq or other pressing matters that they have on the table.

Moreover, the US should oversee that the enticement of Baathists into the political sphere by the al-Maliki government is not at the expense of the greater peace between Kurds and Arabs. Baghdad has been looking to diminish Kurdish power and letting prominent former Baathist hardliners out of the ropes, may well see them in direct confrontation with Kurds in the contested areas. A promotion of Sunni power in the north of Iraq, may well come as a trade-off to maintain Sunni-Shiite peace further south.

Reach out to the Muslim World

Clearly, success in the Middle East goes much further than just achieving a relative notion of success in Iraq. US foreign policy requires much needed healing across the greater Muslim world.

Obama’s keenness to visit Turkey so early in his tenure comes as no surprise, with its strategic position as well as its perception as an important benchmark for the region, with Turkey housing a Muslim democracy, a pro-Western outlook and secular institutions.

Obama is keen to introduce a new dawn in US relations with the Muslim world, far from the legacy and negative perception of Bush.

Not only did Bush fail to sufficiently entice historical nemesis into the diplomatic fold, but US policies in this time also drove a wedge between traditional allies.  With global crisis such the economic downturn and the broader battle against radicalism, even the might of the US can no longer afford a policy of unilateralism. If it can not sway contentious powers into the diplomatic arena, then the least it can do is not damage historical friendships.

Time is a virtue

As much as Obama’s historical ascendency to power has created much hope across the international sphere and with it the prospects of a new beginning, shifts in US policy will take time and concrete progress especially on matters relating to the Middle East may take even longer than the maximum of two presidential terms that Obama can achieve as president.

As much as Bush’s policies took time to implement and foreign relationships deteriorated over a period of time, it will take Obama time to unravel and renew US foreign policy and promote new bonds with global powers.

This concept is best demonstrated with Iraq, where any hasty decisions by Obama may well place a nail in his presidential coffin before his work has even begun. To a great extent, he will have to inherit and assume Bush’s policies, particularly in the short-term, and his hands will be inevitably tied by previous dealings in Iraq.

As much as he has touted swift withdrawal, a cornerstone of his election campaign, any withdrawal must be assessed and conducted in the most responsible manner.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

The ‘beginning of the end’ for the US may well be just the start for sovereign Iraq

With ubiquitous obstacles, much elusive progress in Iraq and a highly-costly liberation, record books may well show Iraq as  a war the US did not win, but a war that they “survived”.

In a speech at the Marine Corps base of Camp Lejeune, U.S president Barack Obama, announced the onset of a “new” strategy in Iraq and effectively the withdrawal of the bulk of US troops by the end of August 2009, by which time the U.S. “combat mission” would have ended.

Withdrawal from Iraq was on one of the pillars of Obama’s election campaign, and was widely anticipated. For many, Obama opted for the middle course of three possibilities – withdrawal within 16 months of taking office as he had often pledged and a more long-term course preferred by others. 

While this may point to a significant milestone in the contentious U.S. episode in Iraq, the U.S. and Iraqi marriage, and specifically their military attachment is far from over.

The beginning of the end?

As Obama expressed gratitude for the sacrifices of U.S. personnel and the “hard-earned” progress achieved, the key message was that the U.S. was now in its concluding chapters in its “war” in Iraq.

In spite of much initial euphoria and expectation, solid progress in Iraq has been hard to come by and with Iraq seemingly achieving some semblance of security and stability, for Washington this may be the crucial window of opportunity needed to finally execute a highly-elusive U.S. exit strategy.

The liberation of Iraq has certainly been far from plain sailing, and the Republican casualty in recent elections was arguably due to the controversial and costly invasion of Iraq as any other matter.

Whether Obama can leave “responsibly” as promised, may be as ambiguous as George W. Bush’s pledge of “success” in Iraq.

Obama may speak with gusto and determination on the situation but ultimately Obama is a realist and that is reflected in the decision to maintain up to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq until end of 2011, in line with the protracted Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) signed by the Bush administration and Baghdad.

Obama emphasised that while progress was made, there were still “difficult days ahead” in Iraq. This statement symbolises the anxiety still expressed in the White House and the relative flexibility that is likely to be appointed by Washington in spite of what appears as an end road for the U.S. military in Iraq.

Iraqi obstacles to prosperity

While the U.S. can point to significant gains in recent years and on paper what appears as a markedly improved security situation and more credible political landscape in Iraq, this may prove to be the end of the beginning for Iraq.

If progress can be measured in terms of security and sectarian violence, then Iraq has certainly advanced at a rapid if not fragile pace in recent years, thanks largely to the surge strategy of Bush.

However, stability and progress must be viewed with as much focus in the long-term as any short-term success measures. In this respect Iraq may have a considerable distance to go.

Iraq remains a disparate entity and key national differences can not be easily papered over by Western notions of democracy, and will remain to blight and hinder the Iraqi social horizon, until all sides truly embrace the principles of compromise, equality and the will of the people.

Beneath the surface, political progress in Iraq has been slow and many key milestones remain elusive.  This includes a fundamental lack of a national hydrocarbon law and constitutional rifts.

Difference over a constitution, the very blueprint of the national values and governance, are no small matter. Differences about how to distribute Iraq’s immense oil wealth, to share power amongst the various communities and resolve highly-emotive topics such the jurisdiction of disputed territories is nothing short of elements that can implode at any time.

Over to you, Iraq

The key message by Bush and now Obama is a full return of Iraq to Iraqis. The U.S. has introduced the notion of democracy and now Iraqi’s can decide their fate under this new umbrella.

In principle this makes logical and indeed practical sense. However, where the gulf in differences is too wide and deep-rooted, democracy and diplomacy may not be so simple to implement. 

Washington is certainly correct in the sense it is down to Iraqis to decide their fortunes. Certainly only the Iraqis can determine the stability, prosperity and level of national reconciliation. No amount of U.S. influence can change the fundamental fact that it is down to Iraqis to make real compromises and select systems of government that will stitch the countries groupings together in relative harmony.

On the surface, Iraq has the military might to enforce security. This is represented by the growingly powerful Iraqi national army, the less official but highly-influential Sunni Awakening Council forces, ever menacing Shiite militia forces and significant and experienced Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Pooled together, Iraq has a mighty force in place that can easily keep security and national defence. Working against each other, Iraq has all of the ingredients for one of the most violent civil wars in living memory.

Kurdish pleas for US intervention

As rifts between Erbil and Baghdad seem to be widening at an alarming pace, key disagreements between both sides, particularly over Kirkuk and other disputed territories, have stoked a vicious war of words.

Plea’s by Kurdish leaders for U.S. intervention has fallen on deaf ears, with the U.S. emphasising that there is now a democratic apparatus in place to resolve such matters.

However, U.S. officials fail to acknowledge the repercussions if these same democratic systems are ignored. Sidelining constitutional matters elected by millions and delaying key milestones is far from democratic.

But the U.S. is no fool. They may support only the will of the Iraqi people on the surface, but they know fully well that applying democracy in such a sphere is sometimes like applying square pegs to a round hole, especially since the results of these principles are never likely to be embraced by factions that fear to “lose” from such popular votes.

Let’s not forget that there was even democracy under Saddam Hussein – but you can vote for only one man and one party.

Obama’s ever-increasing plate

While on the surface, much positivity is been aired about future prospects in Iraq, for the U.S. it may be a case of achieving the “best” short-term outcome, than the ideal outcome.

However, times have changed drastically since the original invasion in 2003. Highly-costly and prolonged wars in Iraq have cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars, without every reaping fundamental long-term gains for these sacrifices. Throw in one of the worst global financial crisis in living memory, a deepening recession in the U.S. and a resurgent Taliban in the forgotten war that is Afghanistan, the U.S. can simply ill-afford to fine-tune the current situation in Iraq and must now start to concentrate on more “urgent” matters.

This does not equate to a U.S. mindset that the Iraqi projects are complete or that they can now abandon the Iraqi experience. Simply, they can not wait impatiently for years to come for Iraqis to reconcile at a leisurely rate, while their other interests in the Middle East and at home suffer immeasurably.

Obama will need to learn from the failures of his predecessor and that means that one can not judge Iraq without considering the greater context of the Middle East. Even if U.S. puts all their eggs in one basket and achieves a real and solid democracy in Iraq, U.S. efforts will be wasted if other key figures in the region are not wooed sufficiently, and discouraged from preying on their neighbouring Iraqi victims like vultures.

U.S. officials acknowledge the need to reach out to the greater Middle Eastern arena, and particularly Iran and Syria. Furthermore, as Iraq became the Republican Achilles heel, the Palestinian roadmap suffered, and this may need the full focus of Obama to be reignited.

Broad Support for Obama’s Plan

Although some remain concerned that Obama’s election pledge was watered down and the residual force remained significant through to 2011, Obama received broad support for the “new strategy” of his national security team.

The Republicans remained generally supportive, although they were keen to showcase the achievements of the Bush administration in getting to this stage.

Others U.S. politicians, as well as key Iraqi politicians, have expresses anxiety that the withdrawal could reverse the dramatic but tentative gains to date.

On his part, Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki stated his confidence that Iraqi forces were capable of providing security in the absence of U.S. forces.

In principle, Obama has tried to be tactful and positive on the surface but real uncertainty will remain in his mind. Obama tried to be reassuring and clear in his statements, but will know much will depend on how Iraqis progress, specifically with the national elections scheduled for later this year.

Although, the White House have pointed to the democratic apparatus to resolve national issues and aired common optimism, behind the scenes they will remain watchful to how Iraqis shape their future.

How the remaining chapters of the Iraqi war unravels is dependent on the Iraqis, but the U.S. must can ill afford, after reaching this stage with much sacrifice by their own admission, simply believe that they have fulfilled their end of the bargain.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Iraqi Cabinet Approves Security Pact with US

All smiles in public, as agreement mark an end to a sour chapter in relations.

Almost one year after the signing of a declaration of principles between US President George Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, governing long-term cooperation and friendship between the two countries, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) was finally passed by Iraq’s Cabinet.

The draft agreement, overwhelmingly endorsed by Cabinet members, was later signed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker, in a showcase ceremony, aimed at emphasising a common bond and vision between both sides.

The final draft, encompassing a series of amendments requested at the end of October by Iraqi government, ended months of protracted and at times tense negotiations, that was fast becoming a thorn for both allies. More critically the belated signing of the pact avoided a nightmare scenario for both sides.

The preceding draft, originally earmarked for approval by Iraqi politicians in October, was perceived by key figures in both administrations as the final text to be voted on by Iraqi parliament. That draft was already the subject of much dilution, owed mainly to Iraqi anxiety around sovereignty and the level of legal immunity afforded to US forces.

On the back of broad-endorsement by the Iraqi Cabinet, the draft is widely expected to win the necessary number of votes in Iraq’s parliament, which is expected to vote next week, marking the last step in negotiations.

However, as Iraqis celebrated the end of an era, the reality of the obstacles that lay ahead could not be better demonstrated than the deadly terrorist bombings that coincided with Iraqi approval.

Sweet end to a bitter debacle?

In many ways, the signing of the pact marked a sweet end for both sides, of what was fast become a bitter debacle.

The target date for the signing of the Sofa agreement was the end of July, however in spite of negotiations spanning much of 2008, agreement proved elusive and for a while unlikely before the end of this year.

The agreement was essentially perceived as a pact on the withdrawal of US forces by the Iraqi government. The US had long resisted setting a firm timetable for the withdrawal of its estimated 150,000-strong forces in Iraq. The Bush administration had always insisted that any specific reduction of forces (let alone full withdrawal) could only be linked with security gains on the ground, and had only loosely adopted a roadmap for withdrawal.

However, with the Iraqi government under fierce public pressure to assert a sense of nationalism and ‘control’, a fixed-timetable for withdrawal became a core aspect of any agreement.

Under the signed pact, US forces are committed to leaving streets of Iraqi towns and villages by 30th June 2009 and leaving Iraq altogether by December 31, 2011.

Without a doubt, the setting of such a timetable on the surface represents a major negotiating victory for Iraq. Clearly, no matter how well dressed any agreement would have been in Iraq’s favour, it would have represented a symbolic failure, predominantly for Arab sections of the population, if withdrawal of US forces was not stipulated in such clear terms.

For the first time, Iraq’s government, at least on paper, is given authority over US troops. Furthermore, serving more of a symbolic importance than a practicality, US soldiers could be tried under Iraqi legislation but under very tough conditions.

The US viewpoint

Although, the US administration had insisted that the bar to changes to the previous draft was very high, in reality it had little choice but to adhere to the new round of amendments requested by Baghdad.

The US presence since shortly after the toppling of Saddam in 2003 has been governed by UN Security Council backed mandates, which has not been without its share of controversy from the beginning. The final UN mandate expires on 31st December 2008, meaning that a lack of a greater strategic framework agreement with Iraq would render US presence in Iraq as affectively “illegal”.

Such a scenario would have resulted in the stark possibility of a US suspension of activities in Iraq. More importantly, such a scenario just days before Bush’s tenure at the helm comes to an end, would have been capped as somewhat of a humiliating end to what was already a highly-contentious US adventure in Iraq under the auspices of Bush.

The Barrack Obama card in the agreement was indirectly a huge factor. Iraqi politicians were hesitant to sign any agreement prior to the US presidential elections without assurance that the next US President would honour the agreement. From that perspective, the appointment of Obama over presidential-rival John McCain was significant as Obama had highlighted the importance of withdrawal from Iraq within a set period (16 months of his appointment).

The US would clearly have advocated a strategic agreement affording a much stronger role in the execution of operations in Iraq and a more prolonged influence on the future direction of Iraq.

The Iraqi viewpoint

The agreement was certainly advantageous from an Iraqi perspective. A more forceful approach towards their US counterparts has been witnessed over the last year or so, and perhaps the agreement is a culmination of that.

It was of high-importance for Iraqi politicians to safeguard their reputations, as the negotiations became a case of national honour. The importance not to be viewed as yielding to US pressure and expectation to stand up to what many still perceive as “occupiers”, became a fundamental factor in the approach to negotiations.

Evidently, the finer details of the agreement were not clear to all Iraqis, and the significance for the Iraqi government became the overriding public perception of ‘victory’. In that perspective, nothing speaks more volumes of victory for most of the Iraqi population than the idea that they are under full control of all affairs and that their sovereignty is safeguarded.

The difficulty in incorporating such a spectrum of views across the across the Iraqi social fabric was iconic of the difficulties of the new democratic Iraq. On the one hand, the Kurds have overwhelmingly supported a decisive strategic agreement with the US from the outset and have long campaigned for a long-term US military presence. Conversely, the Sadrist bloc and other hard-line Shiite and Sunni groups on the other hand, have staged demonstrations marking their opposition to any deal with the US and have openly battled US forces at various intervals.

The aforementioned factors, coupled with the vital provincial elections scheduled for Iraq in early 2009, swayed the stance of Iraqi politicians.  With the upcoming provisional elections threatening to change the socio-political landscape of Iraq and thus endangering the position of many key personnel in the current Cabinet, the standpoint and perception of Iraqi politicians was under as much individual, as collective scrutiny.

The last round of amendments to the draft was designed to appease skeptical Shiite lawmakers and particularly Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who threatened to use his immense influence to “veto” support for the draft. It is likely that final adjustments to the draft, was the result of a direct trade-off with al-Maliki and ensure the public ‘silence’ of al-Sistani on the draft agreement.

With Iraqi politician’s witling down the pact beyond original expectations, Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh statement that the agreement was “the best possible, available option” could not be truer.

Greater strategic agreement

Part of the security pact, is a draft framework agreement underlying the future shape of Iraqi-US relationships in a number of spheres. The framework is designed to define future cooperation and friendship in the areas of economy, culture, technology and a number of other areas, between both countries for years to come.

However, clearly the agreement became so dominated around withdrawal and sovereignty, that understanding and cooperation on other important levels became secondary.

However, for the both Iraq and particularly the US, the overall relationship must go beyond the next three years when US forces withdraw altogether. The US can ill-afford to abandon their Iraqi or Middle Eastern project without some surety that they can continue to influence proceedings in Iraq and the surrounding region.

In the long-term, in many ways this greater framework agreement, mapping out the relationships between both parties, was just as significant as the Sofa agreement.

Iraqi repercussions

Although the bold stance of the Iraqi government in negotiations marks an increasing aura of confidence, especially in light of dramatic security improvements, the road ahead for Iraq remains as tentative as ever.

The simple fact is that in spite of the tough position adopted by Iraqi negotiators, Iraq is not ready politically and certainly not as a force, without US assistance. A suspended US ‘presence’ on 1st January 2009, may have been welcomed by large sections of the population, but would have been catastrophic for Baghdad.

There are a key number of political milestones that must be achieved in the aim of great national reconciliation, with the cushion that the US forces can present.

The pressure is certainly on Iraqi politicians to build fragile security gains into concrete achievements. The landmines that dot the path ahead must be negotiated as successfully as the perceived security pact with the US, if Iraq does not transcend into a far worse position in three years time without the US, than the uncertainty of today with a world super-power at its disposal.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Further Stalling by Iraqi Politicians, Leaves Great Danger of US Suspension in Iraq

After Iraq’s Political Council for National Security stalled in successive days to approve, the presumed ‘take it or leave it’, final draft of the SOFA agreement, US officials once again pressed their Iraqi counterparts to accept the deal. 

It is hoped that if approval is obtained by the council, which practically brings together key political heads across Iraq, from presidency to the heads of major blocs in parliament, ratification by parliament would be a formality.

However, in Iraq where finding broad political agreement is notoriously painstaking, this may be easier said than done.

Dramatic Consequences

In a stark warning, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, stated that without the Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa), then the US activities would be effectively suspended.  Such “dramatic consequences” noted by Gates, should give the Iraqi political process a firm jolt.

However, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh had earlier claimed that leaders were “still hesitant to approve or reject” the deal, placing uncertainty on the chances of a fast turn-around, if not rejection of the draft altogether.

According to al-Dabbagh, ministers would meet in the days ahead for consultation and put forward suggested amendments.  It is hoped that the amended draft can then be sent back to the negotiation table. With US expressing “great reluctance” to renegotiate, the table may remain bare.

Intense Negotiations

After months of negotiations and compromise, an agreement in principle stretching as far back as late 2007 and a missed target of the end of July originally earmarked for the approval of the strategic framework agreement, hopes for a swift pact evaporated.

After months of tense, protected and at times controversial negotiations and over 5 years of what should now in theory at least represent a blossoming partnership between the US and Iraqi governments, the absence of the strategic agreement strikes a blow to future cooperation and will undoubtedly undermine ties.

The original perception from the both governments was that the draft agreement, after concessions from both sides and a multitude of meetings, was now in its final format and can only be accepted or rejected by the Iraqi parliament. US certainly believe that they have done all they can to appease Iraqi anxiety over its sovereignty.

Fragmented Iraqi Landscape

After pushing US compromise to the limit, there is a general consensus amongst some Iraqi parliamentarians that the current form of the deal is the best they can attain.

However, even this reality may not be enough to enforce agreement. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that in the diverse ethnic fabric that is Iraq, establishing such an agreement with the Americans has proved a thorny national issue and the source of much debate.

The fragmented nature of the Iraqi landscape is best depicted, when one-side of the Iraqi divide, namely the Sadrist block are dead against an agreement in any form with the American “occupiers”, whilst conversely for the Kurdish Coalition, a long-term US hand in Iraq is strongly advocated and actively supported.

Only this weekend, thousands of supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated against the security agreement.

After deadly-conflicts between the Mehdi Army and US forces in past years, Sadrist opposition is hardly surprising. However, rising voices of discontent from the main Shiite coalition, United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), has clouded the chances of concord.

Iranian meddling in this affair is more than likely. After all they will certainly use all their “friends” within Iraqi government circles, to drastically dilute, if not revoke such an agreement affecting their sphere of influence, and at times of such animosity with the Bush administration.

US Reassurance

At the pinnacle of Iraqi concern, and the main cause of delays, is the issue of sovereignty. A growingly confident Iraqi government has continually strived to assert its dominance in recent times. The primary question, for sceptical Iraqis is who will really call the shots in Iraq, the Iraqi government or the US administration?

US Ambassador Ryan Crocker once again defended the draft agreement and tried to provide reassurance that Iraq will assume its sovereignty in full.

US officials had pressed hard not to include a definitive timetable for withdrawal, but under the watered-down agreement still to be published, it is envisaged that US forces will leave Iraqi cities by June 2009 and withdraw from Iraq altogether by the end of 2011.

The other Iraqi obstacle to agreement is wording around the liability of US troops and contractors from Iraqi prosecution. Phrasing on the conditions for immunity has been drastically altered, but has still failed to strike the right sentiments with the main Shiite alliance.

The key message from the US administration is that the security pact was always designed with Iraq’s best interests in mind, and based on a voluntary Iraqi endeavour to request continuing US assistance, rather than a forcibly-applied US presence.

What now for the security agreement?

If chances of renegotiation of the draft are slight, then the probability of major concessions at this stage is almost certainly out of the question. However, something must give in this impasse.

If no agreement is reached by the end of this year, when the ‘final’ UN mandate ends, either the current powers afforded continue under a new mandate, which by Gates own admission is not a “clean” option, or the US leave altogether. Ironically, Iraqis do not seem to want both these scenarios.

In recent times, the much-pressurised Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, has tried hard to be portrayed as a strong nationalistic leader, rather than a tool of the US administration. Al-Maliki has expressed his desire to see the draft pass by a two-thirds majority in parliament, to win wider national endorsement.

But such a contentious issue, and the diversity of opinion across the Iraqi social mosaic, means that pleasing all sides is always going to be impossible no matter how agreements with the US are dressed.


Clearly, the US can ill-afford to hastily cut their losses in Iraq, after 5 years of sacrifice and much effort to establish stability and elusive national reconciliation. Security achievements remain brittle and certainly gains are reversible as quickly as they were yielded.

The US administration must ensure that a minimum they keep a strategic-hand, albeit in less-militaristic terms, for years to come, to prevent their Iraqi and more importantly their greater Middle Eastern project, from dramatically falling to pieces.

However, the popular belief that US will remain under any circumstance is misleading. Growing US public discontent, a daunting economic recession, rampant unemployment, a global credit crisis and the impeding change of president, coupled with the billions of dollars spent every month in Iraq, will mean that the US will want to cut back their Iraqi adventures sooner rather than later, without leaving civil anarchy behind.

On the hand, the security agreement represents the best terms that the Iraqi government can get. They have won major concessions and can ill-afford to see their US counterparts leave the country in haste at such times of deep national vulnerability. It is true that Iraqi politicians will aim to be viewed as strong national leaders and thus try to surmount a tougher stance, least to be seen to succumb to US “occupiers”, but they need the US more than ever.

Growing frictions between the KRG and Baghdad, the lack of a hydrocarbon law, bitter disputes over Kirkuk and the implementation of the constitution, and not forgetting the potentially disastrous ramifications if the incorporation of the Sunni Sahwa councils is not treaded with utter caution, all highlight the dangerous road ahead in Iraq.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

‘Eternal Slavery’ or a Mutually Necessary Pact?

Iraqis look for an agreement respecting their rights and serving their interests 

Discussions between U.S. and Iraq authorities on a status of forces agreement, essentially a legal framework defining the rights and obligations of militaries operating on foreign soil, are deadlocked.

The intense US-Iraqi negotiations on the “status of forces agreement” (SOFA) has increasingly turned into an acrimonious public debate. As the details of the first draft were released, it was almost immediately met with wide condemnation by Iraqi politicians and aroused fears and uncertainly in the general public.

The brunt of the anger has been aired by Shiite politicians, particularly the Sadr movement, who have accused the US of wanting to colonise Iraq and labelled the pact as “eternal slavery of Iraq”. While Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has urged for rejection of such moves.

Iraqi politicians have been much more public about description of the talks, which has been used to stoke popular anger at the agreement. The focus of the debate has turned into the question of who is actually in charge of the country, the US or Iraq.

This growing alarm has seemingly prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to adopt a tougher and more decisive stance in the negotiations.

Al-Maliki’s stance can be compared with the new tough approach on Shiite militias, which has seen him make some ground as a “national” leader. Al-Maliki is stuck between winning the necessary support needed from the US to ensure Iraq’s stability and in turn perhaps even keep him in the political hot-seat, whilst at the same time acting like a strong-nationalist leader who can stand up for his country and the wills of the nation.

Even his visit to Iran was dominated by the US strategic agreement, with Iraq split further by its crucial Shiite neighbour who is vehemently opposed to any Iraqi security arrangement with the Americans.

The initial draft was strongly rebuffed by Iraq, who deemed many of the stipulations within the agreement as a gross violation of its sovereignty.

The harsh-line adopted by Iraqi leaders has in turned forced the US to adopt a more flexible approach to negotiations and vitally downplay fears that they would seek anything than an understanding that was in the best interests of the Iraqi nation. This view was reinforced by President Bush, who stressed respect for Iraqi sovereignty, the will of its people and his keenness to assist Iraq in the challenges ahead.

Despite the public rhetoric, inside the political chambers, the Iraqi leaders realise that the valuable gains to date, including improved security, heavy damage on al-Qaeda and crackdown on militias and insurgents, are as fragile as ever. Unable to self-sustain stability and with political reconciliation ongoing, in the absence of US firepower, Iraq could stand to erase much of these gains.

Conversely, a lack of a long-term legal foothold in Iraq, places the US Middle-Eastern project, achieved to date with immense sacrifice in both costs and lives at great risk. In reality, both Iraq and the US need each other as much as ever.

Under continuing negotiations, some progress was made. Both the Iraqi and US officials have stressed importance of concluding a security pact before end of July as planned. It is hoped that a SOFA will be in place by 1st January 2009, where the current UN mandate expires, effectively putting the US involvement in Iraq under a legal vacuum.

The possibility of prolonged stand-off seemed high, when al-Maliki described the talks as reaching an “impasse” and emphasised multiple choices if no agreement was reached by the end of the year, including ominously even asking the US to leave outright. Iraqis have insisted that no agreement is affective without endorsement by the 275-member Iraqi parliament, which giving the hostilities to date may prove a challenge.

Iraq is insisting on the right to veto any U.S. military operations throughout its territory, maintain control of Iraqi air and sea space, place US contractors under Iraqi law, and has stated the importance of prior agreements before any US action. This in firm contrast to original US stipulations.

The agreement is reportedly only valid for 2 years, which would be aimed at removing ambiguity on US presence, although the US have continually emphasised that they do not envisage long-term bases.

For the US itself, the negotiations and their future course in Iraq is under intense spotlight. Many democrats have criticised Bush for the tying the hands of the next administration and view Bush’s insistence that no legislative approval is required with much scepticism. There are tough times ahead for the US as well as Iraq, while immediate withdrawal may certainly prove catastrophic, open-ended commitment is not a viable alternative any longer with increasing public displeasure and unbearable financials burdens.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.