Tag Archives: SOFA agreement

New controversy over election law drowns short-lived euphoria in Iraq

After the brief scenes of jubilation in the aftermath of the passing of the election law on November 8th 2009, some predicted that a tough road still lay ahead in Iraq. What many didn’t expect is that that tough road would come merely two weeks later.

The veto of the election law by Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, an act followed closely after Kurdish leaders expressed their own strong discontent over the law and threatened to boycott the elections over the distribution of votes, left the election process in disarray and meant an almost certain postponement of the elections past 31st January 2010, voiding a key stipulation of the Iraqi constitution and dampening US hopes of a symbolic withdrawal of troops by August 2010.

It appears likely that the elections will be held a month after the Shiite religious festival of Arbain at the earliest. Any shift from the timelines outlined in the constitution sets a benchmark for future political manipulation, particularly from any strongman intent on “hanging-on” to power in the future.

The latest round of disputes yet again highlights the fragile nature of the Iraqi political mosaic. Whilst the US surge strategy has helped to dramatically improve security, ominously this has not been able to mask the fractured nature of the Iraqi ethnic and sectarian framework with the key goal of national reconciliation appearing as elusive as ever.

Vice Presidential veto

The election veto by al-Hashemi, causing a public stir, was due to what he deemed as an insufficient number of seats reserved for Iraqis living abroad, with al-Hashemi keen to see this increase from 5 to 15, predominantly benefitting Sunnis who were dispersed in large numbers at the height of the insurgency.

al-Hashemi appears anxious to win credibility ahead of the national elections amongst the Sunnis and has dug his heels to seemingly safeguard Sunni interests. 

Election law rework

Subsequent rework of the election law by the Iraqi parliament failed to produce a draft that appeased Sunni lawmakers. In contrast, the latest version was backed by the Kurds with an agreement on revising the format for the allocation of additional seats.

Iraqi population increase estimates, which the additional 48 seats in the parliament (from 275 to 323) were based on, used the 2009 ration data from the Iraqi Ministry of Trade.

This led to a strong rebuke from the Kurds, who based on the rationing card system, received only 3 additional seats out of a total of 48, whilst remarkably the province of Nineveh received 12 alone.

The Kurds suspected a conspiracy to undermine their power and issued a strongly-worded statement threatening to boycott the elections.

The stance of the Kurds is understandable. First of all the ration data from the Trade Ministry is widely considered to be corrupt and incorrect. Over the past few years, there has been wide abuse of the rationing system and to compound matters millions of Iraqis have been displaced internally. Furthermore, many Kurds may not necessarily claim rations in the more prosperous north, which has avoided much of the volatility of the south.

Sunni backlash

A frequent theme of successive Iraqi governments and the US administration has been enticing the disgruntled Sunni population into the political process. Much of the reconciliatory initiatives have been centred on encouraging Sunnis to participate in government via a number of concessions.

After a boycott by Sunnis in the first major election of 2005, when insurgency and Sunni anger was high, the Sunnis have steadily joined the political sphere culminated in much hope that the upcoming elections would finally result in real representation across the Iraqi divide that would prompt progression.

However, the latest round of changes on the election law has failed to attract Sunni support and this has led to a threat by al-Hashemi that he will veto the bill a second time.

While parliament can override a second veto with a three-fifths majority, with Kurds and Shiites able to muster enough of the required votes, this places serious risk of stoking Sunni anger. Sunnis are unlikely to boycott any vote in 2010 as this would yet again deprive them of political clout, however, this pushes national reconciliation further away and ominously sets a dangerous precedence to force other legislation at the expense of other parties at a later date.

In addition to the changes on the distribution of additional seats in parliament based on population growth, the election law was also amended so that Iraqis living abroad will have votes count towards their province of origin, rather than allocation of specified seats for voters outside Iraq as requested by al-Hashemi.

Sunni lawmakers deemed the latest round of amendments as unconstitutional. However, by the same token one must acknowledge that allocating 3 seats out of 48 to the Kurds, whilst Sunni-dominated provinces were to receive 24, was hardly constitutional.

Under the original proposal to allocate the additional parliamentary seats, Kurds would have competed for only 38 seats of a total of 323, in stark contracts to 2005 when they had 57 seats, seriously diminishing their power in Baghdad.

Moreover, how can Sunni seats increase so dramatically in line with population figures if 2 millions Sunnis fled abroad in the same time period? There were obvious signs of some sides aiming to increase Sunni influence at the next elections.

Fair and equitable

The problem in Iraq is that parties often refuse compromise on a fair and equitable basis. For example, while Sunnis are happy to deprive Kurds of political influence in the Nineveh provincial council, the same lawmakers demand a fixed quota of seats in the Kirkuk council.

Reaching out to all groups via concessions and compromise is an important and natural part of democracy but this must be as fair as possible.

In Iraq, even when the elections are successfully held in 2010, parties will still refuse to succumb to the will of the majority vote. For example, the Sunnis will still expect a large share of the Iraqi cake and with the US and Shiites keen to keep the current stability in Iraq it makes a policy of appeasement difficult to avoid.

Difficult road ahead

Ironically, if Iraqis can not agree on an election law that is meant to be a prelude to the serious political business in parliament then what chance does Baghdad have of political progress once the real contentious issues come to the fore.

The onset of a national hydrocarbon law and resolution of disputed territories will provide a sterner test of Iraq’s political resolve.

At least the problems have not been swept under the political rug quite in the same way as before. It is better to endure delays, anger and frustration in the short-term, rather than make progress under foreign pressure, only to leave the problem to fester and grow in years to come.

As the Sunni Vice President refused to back the revised election law, ironically the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, expressed his optimism for an election law that he believed catered for all sides.

All this begs the question of why the election process fell apart after only two weeks. Clearly, the original election law which focused on other pressing disputes was rushed through and made guidelines around the distribution of additional seats ambiguous at best.

Ambiguity and democracy in Iraq do not go hand in hand. To win the trust of all factions, every stipulation should be explicitly clear otherwise it would be susceptible to manipulation even before the ink has dried.

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.

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.