The Enduring US Presence in Iraq

Long-term US occupation in the “midst of a frail Iraqi landscape” was always likely

As Iraq and the U.S. continue negotiations, long-term strategic ties have never been more critical for both parties.

Five years of a contentious occupation, thousands of US casualties, billions dollars of expenditure, and unabated battles against insurgents mixed with ever-elusive national reconciliation, paints its own picture. 

However, despite the heavy price that the US has continued to pay, their vision of Iraq as a pluralistic, stable and democratic bastion to act as a model for the volatile Middle-East is far from been realised.

In truth, amidst all frequent calls amongst some Iraqi factions, Iraqi neighbours and rivals in the US Senate to end the occupation, the long-term presence of US troops in Iraq has never been more inevitable.

Simply, a significant troop cut let alone complete US withdrawal at the current time would spell disaster. The US is far from executing its project in Iraq and the short-term goals alone may require 7-10 year of active US military presence. Indeed, any hasty withdrawal in the next 24 months would undo much progress that US has painstakingly attained.

The US without a long-term legal foothold in Iraq, is in danger of seeing the pack cards it has implemented with immense sacrifice, topple at a glance.

Critical issues remain as tentative as ever. Despite, the losses inflicted on al-Qaeda and the small but sturdy strides towards national unity, Iraq remains a magnate for foreign terrorists. The general animosity within the patchwork that is Iraq runs high and radical figures continue to execute influence. More importantly, Iran, Syria and its proxy forces throughout the region continue to pose the greatest danger to the strategic-objectives of the US, its national security and to undoing all the hard-work in Iraq.

Declaration of Principles

In late 2007, George Bush and Nouri al-Maliki signed a somewhat controversial “declaration of principles” to serve as a basis for current talks with view to defining the legal basis for the long-term relationship between the two countries.

The proposed agreement to be completed by a deadline of July 31st, is designed to augment the final UN mandate for the presence of multinational forces which expires at the end of 2008.

The framework of the initial deal included the basis for deterring foreign aggression against Iraq, assisting Iraq against terrorism, and encouraging much-needed foreign investment, primarily American, into Iraq.

With an insurgency fuelled by the presence of “foreign occupiers” and a battle, sometimes violently by Iraqi groups to end the occupation, the idea of such a deal naturally caused much of a stir. 

Ongoing Negotiations for Security Agreement

Negotiations have been ongoing between the Bush administration and the government led by Nouri al-Maliki on two key accords, with view to reaching a final framework which will take affect from 2009.

The first accord is referred to as a “status of forces agreement” (or SOFA), which will serve as a legal framework for the status of the US military in Iraq. As part of this accord, it would allow US forces to launch unilateral military operations, to detain Iraqis and would provide immunity to US contractors from Iraqi law.

The scope of agreements on these articles is unclear. Iraq has in the past month, stressed the need for US compromise on “sensitive issues”.

Although, it is was agreed that specific troop numbers will not be stipulated as part of any accord, it is expected that negotiations will indirectly determine how many of the existing 160,000 troops will remain in Iraq. Giving the current plight of the Iraqi government and future reliance of Iraqi forces, it is likely that at least 50,000 troops will be needed in the years to come. As such, it is unlikely that the agreements will contain timetables for the withdrawal of US forces, which is sure to fuel sentiments in some Iraqi circles.

The second agreement is seen as a long-term “strategic framework”, which will outline US cooperation in the key fields of security, politics, culture and economy.

It is widely believed that the Iraqi government accepted the accord on the basis of certain conditions. The US would need to recognise Iraqi right to secure deals with other countries, US should avoid using Iraqi territories for military campaigns and no large scale bases should be established.

In the coming years it is likely that the US troops will be out-of the public limelight but will serve to support and train Iraqi troops.

Permanent Bases

The idea and in-turn definition of ‘permanent bases’ has caused much debate. The majority of Iraqis have frequently objected to the idea of a full-time military presence in Iraq.

However, although a much looser definition of the word ‘permanent’ will be adopted in the agreements, in all likelihood the agreements that both sides hope to sign envisage just that.

In the same manner as Japan and South Korea in the past, it is unlikely that the US would have cut all its military ties in Iraq and withdrawn all forces. In fact, for the US it would have been a little short of strategic suicide.

Despite, the US seemingly in search of an exit strategy once Iraq has stabilised and democracy has been established, in reality US dreams in Iraq, let alone the Middle East, will take decades.

The US was never likely to wash its hands all together. Iraq is part of a wider picture that is crucial for long-term security and regional stability. Giving the scenario that US forces leave, in the current climate with sectarian tensions high and lack of a strong national army, Iranian agents would have a field day. The country will be at the mercy of its neighbours, with Turkish aggression only exasperated in the north and Syrian elements keen to complement Sunni influence.

US backing in the long-term is intended as a message to neighbouring countries that the US sees Iraq as a vital factor in regional stability. However, the risk is that this will induce a vicious cycle – the US are in Iraq to keep Iranians and other foreign forces in check, whilst foreign agents will not leave Iraq until such Western “occupation” has ended.

Even if no military presence was advocated in the rest of Iraq, in the Kurdistan Region the idea of fermenting long-term US bases would have been highly-popular and a strong possibility. The Kurds strongly encourage US presence and protection, to safeguard their hard-fought gains.

Iraqi Objections

Unsurprisingly, the onset of such deals with the Americans was bitterly opposed in some Iraqi circles. The idea of a long-term US presence, for groups such as the Sadr Movement who based their following on ending foreign occupation, is a testimony to their claims that US wants to “colonise” Iraq.

It seen as a move that would violate the countries sovereignty and would put the country under de-facto US hegemony.

Senior clerics, including Ayatollah Seyyed Kazem Haeri and Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have strongly objected to a ‘security accord’ between the US and Iraq. According to some sources, the Grand Ayatollah has insisted he would not allow Iraq to sign such a deal with “the US occupiers” as long as he was alive.

The Sadr movement, fresh from deadly battles against government forces, accused the government of unnecessarily turning Iraq in a battle front with many countries.

Objections at Home

The elusive battle for stability and success in Iraq has turned Iraq as a centre stage for growing US public discontent. Clearly, the presidential race has been by-far dominated by the Iraq war blamed on sky-high fuel prices and economic recession.

With President Bush under the firing line for tying the hands of the next administration by passing his mistakes, the long-term arrangements have been criticised by Democrats and some Republicans and raised fear amongst the public.

Although the deals, claimed as ‘non-binding’ by the Bush administration, are within the executive powers of the president, congressional Democrats have called for Senate ratification.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker moved to dampen fears by describing the framework as a “political document” and reassuring Congress that they will be fully briefed on all negotiations.

The Bush administration have emphasised, that any deal will not tie the next US administration or commit the US to defend Iraq, as either side could cancel the deal at any time.

However, some members of Congress, criticised the administration for making obligations without understanding the consequences of not fulfilling assurances, regardless of whether they are legally binding.


Despite the focus and controversy such security deals may receive, in reality it was a necessity for both the US administration and particularly the new Iraq.

Although, conspiracy theorists will be working overtime, long-term US occupation in the midst of a frail Iraqi landscape, the current regional mire and the greater US Middle-Eastern project, was always very likely.

Although, the US have tried to played down the agreement by pledging it will not stipulate specific U.S. troop numbers or “permanent” military bases, reality and not definition of terms, will determine their future role in Iraq.

With an already volatile and disenchanted nation who has suffered immensely, the provisions of the agreements were always going to be introduced with a degree of ambiguity, as transparency would have fuelled an outcry at the worst possible time for the Iraq regime.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

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