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.
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.
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.
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.