WASHINGTON (IPS) — The text of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari Monday closes the door to a further U.S. military presence beyond 2011 even more tightly than the previous draft and locks in a swift end to Iraqi dependence on the U.S. military that appears to be irreversible.
Residents look at U.S. soldiers of 4th Battalion, 42nd Field Artillery guarding a road in central Baghdad’s Salhiya district, November 20, 2008. REUTERS/Mahmoud Raouf Mahmoud
The agreement represents an acute embarrassment for the Bush administration, which had taken the position through most of the summer that the agreement would be consistent with its demand for a “conditions-based” withdrawal. Instead of adjusting its rhetoric to reflect the actual agreement, White House press secretary Dana Perino took the line Monday that the agreement contains only “aspirational dates” for complete withdrawal and for withdrawal from Iraqi cities and towns.
That was a Bush administration demand that was still in the negotiating text as of Aug. 13, in the form of language referring to “time targets” rather than a firm deadline for withdrawal and which even allowed the two sides to “review” the “conditions that might lead to one side asking the other to extend or reduce the time periods” for withdrawal from cities and complete withdrawal.
But the Bush administration soon dropped those demands, perhaps in the recognition that a Barack Obama administration would withdraw even more rapidly than the date set in the agreement.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also supported that White House line by suggesting that the U.S. military would continue to talk with its Iraqi counterparts, and that it is “theoretically” possible for the deadline for complete withdrawal to be extended.
But Mullen’s expression of continued hope for reversing the verdict of the negotiations dramatized the degree to which the U.S. military leadership has remained out of touch with the Iraqi political reality of nationalism and resistance to dependence on U.S. military forces.
The previous draft, dated Oct. 13, did contain language that offered a formal way to extend the 2011 deadline for complete U.S. withdrawal beyond that date. That language allowed Iraq to “ask the U.S. government to keep specific forces for the purposes of training and support of the Iraqi security forces” but would have required that “a special agreement will be negotiated and signed by both sides in accordance with the laws and constitutional requirements in both countries” or a revision of the treaty itself. In either case, the Iraqi parliament would have been required to approve such a request.
But the Bush administration agreed in the final pact to delete both those provisions, on the demand of the Iraqi government. That demand, in turn, was the result of intense pressure from Iraqi Shi’a parties that are close to Iran and popular displeasure with the military occupation.
The pro-Iranian parties had threatened to oppose the agreement in the Iraqi parliament if those and other offending sections were not changed.
It has been known since last summer that the agreement would require that U.S. troops move out of populated areas by the end of June 2009. But a provision introduced into the text in October strongly hints that the Iraqi government will seek to speed up that process even further by establishing a timetable for full turnover of responsibility to Iraqi forces before that date.
Article 25 says U.S. combat forces must “withdraw from all cities, towns, and villages as soon as the Iraqi forces take over the full security responsibility in them.” The Jun. 30, 2009 date is thus not the earliest that it could happen but the latest date for the completion of the process.
A further indication of the intention of the Iraqi government to speed up the process of reducing dependence on the U.S. military is new language in the final draft suggesting that Iraq wants a complete timetable for the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. Article 25 also requires the creation of “mechanisms and arrangements to reduce the U.S. forces levels within the specified time period…”
U.S. troops are forbidden by the agreement from carrying out operations without prior Iraqi approval and from detaining any Iraqi without an Iraqi court order. These tight new constraints on U.S. forces in Iraq represent a stark contrast to the virtual complete independence with which U.S. forces operated there until 2008.
The SOFA represents a formal recognition of a remarkable shift in power relations between an occupying power and the state created under its protection. What had appeared to be a safely dependent client regime was instead a regime that was waiting for the right moment to assert real control over the military presence of that power.
Not only the Bush administration and the U.S. military but most of the U.S. national security elite assumed throughout most of the negotiations on the SOFA that Iraq would agree to the advisory, training and support missions that the U.S. military wanted to carry out in Iraq. U.S. officials and supporters of such missions talked about 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. training and support troops remaining in the country indefinitely.
The supporters of such a role believed that Iraqi security forces could not fight a counterinsurgency war without the U.S. military directly involved in the effort. But that assumption turned out to be an expression of parochial institutional and political interests rather than reflecting the views of the Iraqi leadership.
The willingness of the Iraqi government to get along without the help that most of Washington believed was essential to the regime’s survival appears to reflect profound differences in interests between the two governments over how to handle both Sunni and Shi’a dissidents. The Shi’a-dominated regime feels more confident of its ability to deal with the potential for Sunni military resistance without an overweaning U.S. military presence than with it.
It also has greater confidence in its ability to handle the problem of Sadrist nationalist resistance by assuming a nationalist position on the U.S. military than by relying on its help. From the Iraqi government perspective, a series of agreements with Sadr brokered by Iran provided more security in 2008 than U.S. military operations against the Sadrists had provided up to that time.
In a broader geopolitical sense, the SOFA reveals the political reality that U.S. military power in Iraq could not be translated into longer-term influence over the country. Once a Shi’a regime with close political and religious ties to Iran came to power, it was inevitable that reliance on U.S. military power would be only a temporary policy, to be phased out when conditions permitted it.
The SOFA negotiations provided the occasion for that phase-out to be formalized.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam,” was published in 2006.