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
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.