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    Middle East
     Dec 24, 2008
Slowly does it with Iraq withdrawal
Slowly does it with Iraq withdrawal
By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO - Washington and Baghdad signed a security agreement this month allowing the United States to maintain a military presence in Iraq for another three years. But while Baghdad officials hailed the pact as the "beginning of the end" of the US-led occupation, Egyptian commentators - like much of the Iraqi opposition - say the agreement simply reflects US strategic interests.

"The pact reflects the balance of power and is therefore entirely in the interest of the US," Ahmed Thabet, political science professor at Cairo University told Inter Press Service. "It provides formal


cover for the continuation of the US occupation of Iraq and leaves all decision-making - and the very fate of the country - in American hands."

After months of wrangling between the US-backed government in Baghdad and Iraqi opposition groups, the agreement was ceremonially signed December 14 by outgoing US President George W Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The pact lays down a timetable for the phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities by June of next year and the complete departure of the US military from Iraq as of January 1, 2012.

In addition to a timetable for troop withdrawals, the treaty also puts limited restrictions on US military operations in Iraq and grants Baghdad a degree of legal jurisdiction under certain conditions - over US troops.

While Iraqi government spokesmen defended the pact as a step towards the eventual departure of all foreign troops from the country, Iraqi opposition groups blasted the deal. Iraqi Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers staged angry demonstrations against the agreement, called it "a pact of shame and degradation".

In Egypt, a major Arab ally of the US, the signing of the agreement was met by official silence. Independent Egyptian commentators, however, were quick to criticize the document, which they say amounts to little more than political cover for the US-led occupation of Iraq.

"The agreement is simply a formal continuation of the longstanding US occupation and will ultimately allow American troops to stay in Iraq indefinitely," Gamal Mazloum, retired army general and expert in military affairs, told IPS.

Most importantly, said Mazloum, the pact does not clearly and definitively call for the full withdrawal of all US troops by the January 1, 2012, deadline.

"The terms of the agreement are ambiguous and contain a number of possible legal loopholes," he said. "Although it states that the US military presence is temporary, there are a number of stipulations that could allow it to extend its mandate further.

"Iraqi government officials say the pact represents the 'beginning of the end' of the US military in Iraq," Mazloum added. "But at the same time, they're publicly saying that US forces might be needed for another 10 years."

On December 11, a spokesman for Maliki reportedly told a Pentagon press briefing that US troops might be required to provide security in Iraq for up to another decade. "The Iraqi military is not going to be built in the three years. We do need many more years," he was quoted as saying. "It might be 10 years."

In a statement issued days later, the Iraqi premier insisted that his spokesman's comments "did not represent the Iraqi government".

Thabet, too, expressed serious reservations over the likelihood of a full US withdrawal within the next three years, pointing to recent calls by the US Defense Department for the establishment of permanent military bases throughout Iraq. "In this case, the US will be able to say it has withdrawn while simultaneously maintaining strategic command centers from which it can force its policies on the Iraqi government and people," he said.

On December 13, fears that the agreement's terms would not be respected by US military planners were partially borne out when the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, announced that US "training teams" would remain in Iraqi cities beyond the June 30 deadline.

The agreement was officially approved - by a slim majority - by the Iraqi parliament late last month. Nevertheless, critics say the pact lacks the support of the Iraqi public, the vast majority of which would like to see the immediate departure of all foreign troops.

"Washington forged the security pact with the government in Baghdad, not with the Iraqi people," said Thabet. "And the only Iraqis that will benefit from it are those individuals and political parties - be they Sunni, Shi'ite or Kurdish - working in the interest of the US."

Thabet added that, almost six years after the US-led invasion, there is still "tremendous popular opposition" to the presence of foreign troops in the country. "The occupation hasn't benefited anyone except the so-called Iraqi 'expatriates' that cooperated with US war planners in Washington and London in advance of the invasion," he said.

Nor, say critics, will the signing of the agreement have a positive impact on Iraq's dangerous security environment.

"I seriously doubt that the pact will improve the security situation, since the US military itself - which broke up the country's existing police apparatuses and encouraged sectarian conflict - is the reason behind most of the instability," said Mazloum.

He went on to point out that, according to the document's small print, US soldiers operating in Iraq will for the most part remain subject to US - not Iraqi - law. "This means that war crimes perpetrated by US troops can be expected to continue," he said.

"Iraq will never be stable until all foreign military forces completely withdraw from the country," Mazloum said. "But given the vague terms of the new pact, I can't see this happening for a very, very long time."

(Inter Press Service)

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