After months of debate and negotiation, punctuated by periodic reports of progress and agreement on various final drafts, the talks between the US and the Iraqi government on a new Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) appear no closer to a conclusion than ever before. On October 15, the terms of the draft agreed to by the Iraqi government were published, prompting protest across the country as it became clear that the US was determined to remain in the country on its own terms, and that the government of Nouri al-Maliki had been forced to agree to terms regarded by most Iraqis as humiliating and unacceptable. Despite reports in the Western media that the US had made major concessions on all points of Iraqi concern, it quickly became clear the concessions were little more than cosmetic, not least because officials in the US were desperately trying to reassure their own media that no significant concessions had been made. In Baghdad, meanwhile, even members of al-Maliki’s own government were criticising the deal, let alone opponents such as Muqtada al-Sadr. Reports from within the government suggested that only the Kurds were willing to accept the draft negotiated by Maliki, making it virtually impossible that the agreement can be ratified by the Iraqi parliament.
The problem for the US is that the gap between their aspirations to maintain a military presence in Iraq (and some prospect of achieving the economic and strategic objectives that prompted the invasion in the first place), and the Iraqi people’s determination to have the invaders out of the country as quickly as possible, is unbridgeable. That was always likely to be the case, of course; but the US hoped that their military power and political influence would persuade the Iraqi government, and enough of the Iraqi people, that their presence had to be tolerated, as it is in most other Arab countries. Unfortunately the military failure of the US, and the political strength of opposition forces in Iraq, has emboldened the Iraqi people, so there is now a real sense that the US can be forced out altogether. This is what the people who took to the streets to protest against the draft treaty are demanding, and there is now a real chance of it being achieved. As part of their pressure on Iraq to get the treaty agreed, US military officials have threatened that they may have to pull their troops out of the country if no agreement is reached; which is a very odd threat indeed, considering that that is precisely what most Iraqis want in any case.
The Maliki government, having failed to get this draft agreed in Iraq, will now be hoping that the negotiations can be re-opened after the US presidential elections on November 4, and that the easing of domestic political pressure in America will make it possible for the US to make further and more genuine concessions. The deadline of the end of the year is also artificial; if agreement is not reached by then, all parties know that some interim arrangement can be made to cover the US’s continued presence, whether by an extension of the UN mandate or by a temporary agreement in Baghdad. This would enable the Iraqi government to deal with the new administration which takes office in Washington in January; and this will almost certainly be an Obama administration, which may feel less hesitant to acknowledge defeat in Iraq than Bush now is or McCain would be.
However events unfold, however, one thing is clear: for all the talk about the US’s “failure” in Iraq, the reality is that it has in fact been defeated by popular military and political resistance. And that is a fact has major implications for other Muslims suffering US aggression and occupation.