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    Middle East
     Dec 2, 2008
SOFA not sitting well in Iraq
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - Iraqis today are sharply divided over the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), ratified by the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki then approved by parliament in late November.

It is now final; the 140,000 US troops in the country will withdraw from Iraqi cities and towns by June 30, 2009, and from all of Iraq by December 31, 2011. President George W Bush has gone down in history as the US president who invaded Iraq, and incoming president Barack Obama will make his name as the man who pulled out from Iraq.

Many rumors and speculation surrounded the exact nature of the


pact, until its official text was published on November 28, but it is now clear that it gives the US the right to use Iraqi airspace, waters and land and train Iraqi personnel, while the US pledges to protect Iraq from any revolution, coup or attack from an outside force.

There is no 50-year mandate for US military bases in Iraq, as some Iraqi papers had speculated. The pact forbids holding prisoners without criminal charges, and limits searches of homes and buildings. Coalition forces and contractors will be subject to Iraqi law if they commit major and premeditated crimes while off-duty and off-base.

Parliament also passed another US-Iraqi bilateral pact called the Strategic Framework Agreement, aimed at ensuring minority Sunni interests and constitutional rights. Additionally, according to sources inside Iraq, the US has promised Maliki it will not use its privileges in Iraq to launch war on any of Iraq’s neighbors, in clear reference to Iran. That explains why Iran-backed politicians like Maliki and senior members of the United Iraqi Alliance, which were not too enthusiastic about the pact when negotiations started last February, have muzzled their opposition in recent weeks. To keep the door open for change, deputies decided to put the deal up for a national referendum by July 30, 2009.

Of parliament’s 275 members, a slim majority of 149 approved the pact in parliament last Wednesday. Only 189 showed up for voting, with many fearing for their future if they said yes, others fearing the same if they said no. Rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc, which holds 30 seats in parliament, said no to the pact and called for a three-day mourning period throughout Iraq, claiming that SOFA legitimized the US occupation of 2003.

Muqtada, who stopped short of telling his supporters to riot, hoped that with 44 deputies from the Iraqi Accordance Front, 11 from a smaller Islamic party (the Iraqi Dialogue Front), 15 from the Fadila Party and 25 from the Iraqi National List of ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi, he could drown the pact from within parliament. His followers came to parliament dressed in black, carrying signs that read, “No, absolutely!”

The first to back out on him was the Sunni Accordance Front, which was accused by the Association of Muslim Scholars of ‘selling Iraq’ in exchange for promised reforms by Maliki. These reforms included a greater role for the Front in government, and a general amnesty setting thousands of political prisoners free. Certain guarantees were given by the prime minister, explaining why the Front believed him this time, after having walked out on his cabinet in August 2007. The Fadila Party also changed course, leaving Muqtada in the cold, absenting itself altogether from the parliamentary session and depriving him of 15 votes.

If anything, the persistence of Muqtada in obstructing the pact - and the weight he enjoys in the Shi'ite street - have all added to his image as the only Iraqi leader who really matters anymore, at a grassroots level. Millions of Sunnis in Iraq are not happy with SOFA and find that the only leader who worked seriously on bringing it down was Muqtada.

Observers have been puzzled by the phenomenon of Muqtada, a rebel turned politician then kingmaker in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. He is now starting to appeal to Sunnis as well as Shi'ites. Some have accused him of being an agent of the Iranians while others claim he is the only Iraqi Shi'ite leader who enjoys certain independence from the mullahs of Tehran and wants Iraq independent and free of any foreign influence, be it American or Persian.

The young Muqtada (35) commands strong loyalty among ordinary Shi'ites in the slums of Baghdad, known as Sadr City, because of the vast charity network that he operates, modeled after that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. In addition to protection and a decent stipend for his followers, he also provides them with protection from other rival groups, like the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the Awakening Councils of Sunni tribesmen and al-Qaeda.

Muqtada is currently making use of his relative independence from Tehran and promoting Iranian objection to SOFA. The Iranians are using both him and Maliki, for different purposes, to advance their interests in Iraq. Maliki unwillingly nods to SOFA thereby pleasing the Americans (and securing an extension of his mandate in office) while Muqtada says ‘no’ to it and drums up anti-American sentiment in the streets of Baghdad. Rather than clamp down on the Sadrists, Maliki turns a blind eye to the anti-SOFA activities, letting anti-Americanism boil while distancing himself from the rejectionist front.

Contrary to what many people believe, SOFA has united the Shi'ite community and created common denominators between Sunnis and Shi'ites as well. It has also created divisions within the Sunni community, between those who supported and those who continue to refuse it, mainly former Ba'athists and hardline Islamists. Maliki remains lukewarm about it and does not fully trust the Americans when they say that they will withdraw from Iraq in 2011.

Nor does he believe that it is 100% certain they will not use the agreement to wage war on Iran. From where he and Iran see things, nothing guarantees that the US cannot violate the agreement and attack Iran - using Iraq (just as it did with Syria last October) - and get away with it. An Iraqi journalist observing the scene from Damascus told Asia Times Online, “Who will punish America if it decides to violate the agreement and attack Iran? The UN? We saw how useless the UN was in preventing war in 2003. Iran? Or Iraq, which was not even informed of the decision to strike on Abu Kamal [in Syria]?”

Maliki, however, has no choice but to give the US the benefit of the doubt, investing in the promises of dialogue made by Obama. He is keeping his fingers crossed and relying on Muqtada - more than anybody else - to express views that he cannot personally say, due to the constraints of his job as prime minister. Maliki is now concentrating his efforts on re-election in 2009, and with backing from the Sunnis with whom he reconciled due to SOFA he has a higher change of winning.

Nobody should believe that he and Maliki are now working against each other; they share the same objectives - broadly speaking - and will return to the relationship that existed in 2006-2007. Maliki provides Muqtada with protection - and perhaps even government office for his top politicians - while Muqtada legitimizes him in the Iraqi street.

One of the immediate results of parliament’s ratification of SOFA was a terrorist attack at a mosque controlled by Muqtada, killing 12 people. The suicide bomber struck at the Musayyib Mosque, nearly 40 miles south of Baghdad. Three years ago, a similar attack took place at the same venue, killing nearly 90 people in the mixed Shi'ite-Sunni neighborhood. It was probably carried out by militias angered by Muqtada's steadfastness.

Those who carried out the attack wanted to show that Iraq is still vulnerable, and in no way ready to assume control of its own security. They are saying that Iraq still needs the United States and Muqtada cannot provide a security replacement. One Muqtada supporter, Sheikh Abdulhadi Mohammadawi, commented on the explosion, saying that it is "one of the consequences of the security agreement. The Iraqi government cannot survive without the US presence and as long as the Americans remain here, Iraq will be still a battlefield." Shortly afterwards, another explosion took place, this time in central Baghdad, killing three people and wounding 13.

More is certainly yet to come.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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