WASHINGTON - Despite apparent serious disagreements reflected in a series of
incongruent statements by senior officials of the United States and Iraqi
governments, they appear to have made a breakthrough in negotiations for a new
The fate of the pact appeared especially uncertain when, on June 9, the
Associated Press quoted an unnamed senior George W Bush administration official
as saying that it was "very possible" that the two countries would not reach a
deal and that they would have to extend a United Nations mandate authorizing
the presence of US troops on Iraqi soil.
Four days later, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gave unexpected weight to
speculation about the deal's failure when he said during a visit to neighboring
Jordan, "We have reached a
dead end, because when we started the talks, we found that the US demands
hugely infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq, and this we can never accept."
US officials moved quickly to downplay Maliki's remarks. One day later, Bush
declared during a press conference with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy,
"If I were a betting man, we'll reach an agreement with the Iraqis." Then, to
ward off widespread criticism that the agreement imposes several unpopular
conditions on Iraq, Bush added, "We're going to work hard to accommodate their
This optimistic tone was further amplified when Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar
Zebari announced on Tuesday in Washington, "I believe a deal is within reach,"
attributing it to US "flexibility". He said he expected all issues to be
resolved by the end of July.
However, Zebari warned, "We have to be realistic about the obstacles." These
include the thorny question of whether the US military will have the authority
to detain Iraqi citizens and hold them in US custody.
Zebari's optimism appeared to stem from a US willingness to drop a demand that
foreign civilian contractors operating in the country should enjoy immunity
from Iraqi laws. Washington has also reportedly agreed to reduce its demand for
58 military bases to a number in the "low dozens".
The US insists it will not use Iraq to launch an attack against other countries
in the region, such as Iran or Syria, Zebari was quoted as saying - although,
as Inter Press Service (IPS) reported last week, some of the language in the
March 7 draft agreement appears to be deliberately misleading and leaves open
the possibility for the US to respond "defensively" to threats to its troops or
Bush has just six more months left in the White House, meaning that time is
more on the side of the Iraqis than the US administration. Recognizing that,
and given domestic opposition in Iraq to the deal, Iraqi leaders appear to want
to pressure the US to make as many concessions as possible.
The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that Baghdad and Washington are
negotiating provides a legal basis for the future presence of US troops in
Iraq. The US has about 80 similar agreements with other countries, including
Japan, Germany and South Korea.
But critics allege the agreement with Iraq is far broader than any SOFA deal
ever signed and borders on a treaty, which under the US constitution requires
congressional approval. The Republican-led White House is fiercely opposed to
involving legislators in the process, fearing its Democratic rivals may not
agree with the provisions of the pact favored by the Bush administration.
The two countries have also agreed to negotiate a "Strategic Framework", which
will regulate bilateral relations in the areas of politics, economics and
Faced with stiff domestic opposition, the Iraqi government has run into great
difficulty trying to sell the deals to the public.
Opinions in Iraq on the SOFA pact are diverse and in some cases deeply divided.
While some reject it on nationalistic or religious grounds or both, others
support a deal but want a clear timetable for eventual withdrawal of US troops
to avoid an "open-ended occupation".
"The Status of Forces Agreement is difficult because it involves sovereignty,
especially for Iraqis who do not want to be regarded as 'puppets' of the US,"
Phebe Marr, an author and scholar of Iraq's modern history, told IPS.
The fact that negotiations are ongoing provides a unique opportunity for
politicians to gain popularity by taking a vocal stance against it.
Amid all this, Muqtada al-Sadr's Shi'ite movement is playing a smart game by
opposing the deal and demanding a referendum on it, as it declared through a
mass protest in late May. This strategy both strengthens the Sadrists' anti-US
credentials and gains the favor of the masses by insisting on public approval
for any agreement.
If the two countries fail to reach a deal, there will be two alternatives:
either the Iraqi government will request an extension of the UN mandate for
another year, or the US will have no legal basis to remain in Iraq and be
forced to pull out. This last appears highly unlikely, as Iraq still does not
have a reliable, well-trained army to establish order or an air force to
protect its airspace and borders.
"I think the government in Baghdad wants an agreement while Bush is still in
the White House. It is not clear how supportive a new US administration might
be of a continuation of the present arrangement. The idea that the Iraqi
government wants the US to leave tomorrow is mistaken. Their continuance in
power is at stake," said Marr.