If anyone hoped that the security pact being negotiated between the US and Iraq was rising above the cycle of frustrations and false starts, then such fanciful thoughts can now be dismissed. On September 17 Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki told a group of Iraqi journalists that “there are very serious and dangerous obstacles facing the deal.” Maliki's warning laid to rest speculation and recurrent reports that the two sides were inching closer to finalizing an accord to replace the UN mandate for stationing American troops in Iraq, which ends on December 31, thus paving the way for a large US troop scale-down by 2011. The two sides were supposed to have completed a final draft of the strategic agreement by July 31. Yet disagreements over issues related to Iraqi sovereignty, stability and interests have delayed the completion.
At the heart of the accord are two agreements: one is a strategic framework agreement that permits the US-led coalition to continue to conduct military operations on Iraqi territory after the expiraty of the UN Security Council Resolution 1723, which authorizes the presence of a multinational force at the request of the Iraqi government. The second is a status of forces agreement (SOFA) that would govern the presence of US troops who remain in Iraq. Usually, SOFA accords cover issues like entry and exit rights and legal jurisdiction over foreign military personnel, whereas strategic framework agreements cover security and political relationship between two countries.
The talks, which started in March, are being conducted in accordance with a declaration of principles agreed last November between Maliki and US president George W. Bush. The declaration consists of a shared statement of intent that introduces common principles to codify future US-Iraqi relations. It also sets the stage for preferential treatment for US investors. Iraqis and Americans agree on the long-term mission of the US forces, which consists of training, arming, equipping and providing expertise and support to Iraqi forces. Concerned that their forces are still not able to stand alone to face the enormous security challenges Iraq poses, Iraqi officials look favorably at a US commitment to provide assistance to their forces when requested.
A major sticking point that is yet to be resolved relates to the immunity of US soldiers to prosecution. American negotiators are pushing to retain the US's jurisdiction over offenses and crimes committed by its soldiers on Iraqi soil. But their Iraqi counterparts have demanded that American soldiers should not be immune from punishments under Iraqi law if they commit “grave and intentional mistakes.” US soldiers are currently immune from prosecution under Iraqi laws. This point raises a host of sensitive questions about civil and criminal jurisdiction, given the differences between the two countries' penal codes regarding serious offenses such as murder, rape, abduction and similar crimes.
A closely related issue is that of the presence of tens of thousands of foreign “private contractors” (some of them mercenary soldiers) working in Iraq. The number of US-paid contractors, who perform functions ranging from construction to security and weapons-system maintenance, is believed to exceed the number of US troops deployed in Iraq. Controversy has long surrounded the contractors working for private security firms such as Blackwater, Triple Canopy and Erinys. They are involved in guarding installations and providing protection for American and Iraqi officials, as well as other foreign officials and businessmen. Trigger-happy security contractors have been involved in a series of shooting incidents and firefights that have claimed the lives of many Iraqis. For instance, on September 16, 2007, guards belonging to the Blackwater security company shot dead seventeen Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square,Baghdad, while escorting an American diplomatic convoy. Earlier this year, the US state department renewed a contract with Blackwater to protect US officials in Iraq, despite opposition by the Iraqi government and a public and official outcry over the incident. Foreign security companies lack accountability and effectively operate with impunity. They are not subject to Iraqi law and work outside the multinational force's military command and control, so they are not subject to military tribunals. However, Maliki has said in remarks to Iraqi journalists that the two sides are agreed that, as of the beginning of next year, foreign contractors working for private security firms will be subject to Iraqi law. There has been no acknowledgement of this from the US side.
Maliki told journalists that both sides have agreed to withdraw US troops from Iraq by December 2011. “The Americans have agreed to this,” he said. “At the beginning, we demanded that they leave by 2010, but they asked to leave by 2011.” All US forces will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 2009. The call for a withdrawal timetable has been a key Iraqi demand, but the US has been reluctant to commit to a definite timetable. Washington has also been applying pressure on the Maliki government to accept some 50 permanent military bases in the country and to agree to US control of Iraqi airspace below 29,000 feet.
Other stumbling-blocks to the agreement are the command of military operations in Iraq from next year, and the authority of US soldiers to detain Iraqi citizens or residents. The USargues that as long as Iraq needs the assistance of American troops to conduct operations, Baghdad should not tie the hands of those troops. But the Iraqis are reluctant to give US troops such a broad mandate as would perpetuate the colonial-like situation that Iraq is trying hard to end.
The agreement has also been an occasion for disagreements between the Republican White House and the Democratic Congress. Bush administration officials are adamant that the agreement with Iraq is simply a non-binding accord that requires no congressional endorsement. But lawmakers, who are largely wary of committing the US to long-term military and security roles in Iraq, have argued that security agreements like the one being negotiated between Iraq and the US are treaties and, as such, are subject to congressional approval.
On September 9 Senator Jim Webb (Democrat-Virginia) introduced an amendment that seeks an extension of the UN mandate, which has been in place since May 2003, for one year from the enactment of the US-Iraq strategic framework agreement, in an attempt to give the US Congress a role in negotiating any security-related agreements with Iraq. The amendment, to be attached to the 2009 defense authorization bill, also makes the implementation of the security agreement contingent on “the proper advice and consent of Congress,” according to a statement to the press issued by Webb's office.
It is very difficult for such an agreement to be concluded without resolving these sticking points, which could have a profound impact on Iraq's sovereignty. So far, Washington has stuck to its guns and has been bringing immense pressure to bear on the Iraqi side about these controversial issues. But the Maliki government, which has yet to achieve a lasting domestic reconciliation, cannot afford to sign an agreement that does not address Iraqis' concerns and is not approved by leading Iraqi political actors. A national consensus has been growing inIraq around a firm stand in negotiations with the US, which would guarantee that Iraqi sovereignty will not be compromised further in any deal.
This position is shared by politicians across the political spectrum, and brings together Sunni Arabs disenchanted with the post-Saddam Hussein political order, some of whom have been trying to use the US military presence to dilute the power of the Shi‘ah-dominated government, to Muqtada al-Sadr's movement and even US allies in the country such as former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, who in a testimony on July 23 before the US Congress called for “a time frame for reduction of U.S. forces… linked to measure of progress in Iraq and the conditions prevailing in the country.”
For his part, Sadr has made public his opposition to any agreement with the US in no uncertain terms. “I call upon the Iraqi government again not to sign this agreement,” he said in a statement published on his website on July 30. “I inform them I am ready to lend them my support popularly and politically if they do not sign it.”
Against the backdrop of such national opposition to the permanent presence of foreign forces in Iraq, Maliki knows all too well that the maelstrom of fury which awaits him should he accept the Americans' conditions could force him out of office. Popular pressure is so great that Iraqi officials and politicians, many of whom can be bracketed in the chameleon club, changing colors and positions as the situation dictates, want to establish or shore up their credentials as defenders of national sovereignty and independence by a show of defiance now. In an attempt to strengthen his hand at the talks, Maliki, who has been showing an increasing tendency to govern through his inner circle and shut out other factions, on August 30 dismissed the original negotiating team, led by the Kurdish-dominated foreign ministry, and picked a delegation composed of his national security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i, chief of staff Tariq Najim and political advisor Sadiq al-Rikabi, to conduct the final stage of the negotiations.
But there is more to Maliki's tough stand in the deadlocked negotiations than meets the eye. The US-Iraqi negotiations are unfolding as a major battleground between the US and Islamic Iran, and the Islamic state has been playing an important behind-the-scenes role in prodding Maliki to take a strong stand. Intense Iranian pressure was brought to bear on Maliki in May when the draft US-Iraq accord signed on March 17, without spelling out a withdrawal timetable, was leaked to Iranian diplomats and the Iraqi media by critics of the agreement within Maliki's inner circle. The fury of the Iranian reaction could be sensed from the tone of a signed editorial by Hossein Shariatmadari, the Rahbar's personal representative in Iraq and managing editor of the Kayhan media group, on May 11, in which he asked “how is it that the Maliki government took the first steps toward signing such a disgraceful pact in the first place?” In a direct and unambiguous warning to Maliki, the editorial warned the Iraqi prime minister that the adoption and passage of the draft treaty would prompt the Iraqi people to replace his government with “another Islamist government.” In a similar vein, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the influential former Iranian president and current chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, said on June 4 that “the essence of the agreement is to turn the Iraqis into slaves of the Americans.”
During a three-day visit that he made to Tehran from June 7 to 9, the Iraqi prime minister offered his hosts assurances that his country “does not represent a threat [to Iran] as it was during the former regime.” But Maliki's assurances have failed to soothe Iranian apprehensions over the security pact with the US. In a meeting with Maliki on June 9, Ayatullah al-Udhma Ali Khamenei characterized “the presence of the foreign forces” in Iraq as the “prime fundamental problem” facing the country. Pressure by Iranian officials, whose country's trade and political ties with their next-door neighbor have been growing steadily since the overthrow of Saddam, also played a role in swaying Maliki toward demanding a withdrawal timetable. Speaking to journalists in Jordan on June 12, Maliki said that talks with the US regarding the nature of the US troop presence in Iraq had reached “a dead-end and deadlock” due to the “unacceptable” demands being made by the Americans. He asserted that these demands are unacceptable as they “hugely infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq.”
It was this growing toughness in Maliki's approach which has prompted the marked softening of Bush's long-standing opposition to setting deadlines for American troop reductions in Iraq. In an effort to break the deadlock in the talks over the security pact, Bush told Maliki in a video-conference on July 17 that he agreed to a “general time horizon” for the withdrawal of UScombat troops from Iraq. But Bush's hazy, deadline-less notion of “time horizons” has so far failed to break the logjam in the negotiations.
Continued failure to reach a compromise position by the end of this year could push the Iraqi government to ask for an extension of the US-led multinational force's UN mandate for another year. This would give the parties more time to thrash out their differences and come to an agreement acceptable to both sides. It would also give Maliki more time to build upIraq's armed forces to enable them to stand alone, increasing his confidence that he can survive without the Americans if the White House does not meet his demands.
In the increasingly polarized Iraqi politics, this is a dangerous gamble which could cost Maliki his job.