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.