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What is it?

The Iraqi-U.S. status of forces agreement that was concluded in November 2008 will determine the course of the future U.S. presence in Iraq. Both sides made compromises to get it signed on the terms of President Bush and not those of Barack Obama. To understand it, it suffices to say a few brief words about the current situation on the ground in America's five-year war.

What's the background?

Media attention has long been focused on things other than the situation in Iraq, and the decrease in coverage has largely been a result of the vast decrease in internal violence the country has experienced since the Bush administration's successful surge strategy which began in early 2007. While the situation is reversible, the figures are striking.

In November 2008, 17 U.S. service members died in Iraq, while for the same month in 2007, the figure was 37, and in 2006 it was 70.1 As the surge has gradually brought sectarian violence and the cycles of attack and counter-attack unleashed by the Samarra mosque bombings of 2006 under control, Iraqi deaths have also declined dramatically. The Iraq Body Count Project recorded a total of 24 violent deaths per day in 2008, compared to 61 in 2007 and 72 in 2006.2 The figure is still high, but it is dropping. Iraqis are responsible for security in 13 of 18 provinces, although they can call on U.S. help if they need it; the ultimate war aim, the definition of victory in this war, is to have them responsible in all 18.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi military has scored a number of huge successes that have translated into political successes for the government. The Shi'a government has long been suspected by the country's Sunni minority - of which Saddam Hussein was a member - of only looking out for its own interests, but during 2008 the government deployed the military to battle Shi'a militias that have terrorized Sunnis. The job was incomplete, but the message was clear; so was the one sent by the government's decision to leave Sunni armed groups in existence.

As well as helping build the political capital for a unified Iraqi state, the Iraqi military has begun to become efficient enough to take the lead and allow the Americans to retreat into the background; although U.S. air support is still critical to their battles. However, both U.S. and Iraqi leaders have begun to talk about the "endgame" for U.S. forces in Iraq. This is exactly what Bush's surge was supposed to accomplish: by putting the lid on violence, it created the political breathing room for Iraqi forces to be augmented and Baghdad to become capable of enforcing security throughout the country.

What are the details?

Against this background, the status of forces agreement (SOFA) was negotiated. The SOFA was necessary at the end of 2008 because the U.N. mandate that made the U.S. presence in Iraq legal - yes, it was legal under international law - expires on December 31. It hence needed to be replaced by an agreement between the United States and the sovereign, elected government of Iraq, the creation of which was incidentally another goal of the original invasion. The U.N. mandate gave the U.S. sweeping powers in Iraq to carry out military operations and detain individuals on the authority of the United Nations, whereas the new agreement is based on the consent of the Iraqi people as expressed through their elected representatives. Iraqis will also have the opportunity to vote in a national referendum in 2009 to accept the SOFA or a demand a withdrawal within one year.

If they choose to accept the SOFA, then they will be accepting an agreement that calls for U.S. combat forces to withdraw from Iraq completely by December 31, 2011. Even more strikingly, combat forces are to have withdrawn from all major urban areas by June 2009, which will dramatically decrease the visibility of U.S. foces to the 77% of the population who live in urban areas.3 The top U.S. commander in Iraq has indicated that non-combat forces will stay in the cities to provide intelligence, training and logistical support to Iraqi forces, a situation likely to be accepted by an Iraqi government that realizes it still needs support from the Americans. A top Iraqi government spokesman also got into trouble recently for saying that U.S. help may be needed beyond even 2011, and Pentagon planners are working on the assumption that support troops will be needed after this date.4

The withdrawal timeline was just one part of the agreement. Under it, Iraqi detainees for which the Iraqi government has issued an arrest warrant are to be transferred from U.S. military control to the control of the Iraqi government, which has Amnesty International warning that they are at risk of torture. The number of detainees to be transferred stands at 16,000, many held indefinitely without charge, which was allowable under the U.N. mandate.5 Those for which the Iraqi government has not issued a warrant are to benefit from an amnesty, and it will not be lawful for U.S. forces to detain any Iraqi except at the specific request of the Iraqi government after the agreement comes into force. Other parts of the agreement cover when U.S. forces fall under Iraqi law - whenever they are off duty - and various technical aspects of the U.S. presence. It also states that the Iraqi government has the sovereign right to demand a full U.S. withdrawal at any time.

What about Obama?

Now, as those who have been paying attention will know, Obama repeatedly stated he would withdraw all forces from Iraq within 16 months of entering office; this timetable was predicated on the withdrawal of one or two brigades (one brigade is about 5,000 troops) per month between January 2009 and this the end of this time period. The Bush administration and the Iraqi government did not want this, because both believe that the longer timeline of the SOFA is required to allow Iraqi forces to become responsible for their own security.

Iraq's elected Parliament agreed, with 149 lawmakers out of a total of 259 voting in favour (35 opposed, whereas 91 did not vote). These parliamentarians face re-election in January 2009, which will be a crucial test on how the Iraqi public view the pact; hence, Obama is keeping mum on the SOFA until this verdict has been delivered. The most he has said so far is that the agreement "points us in the right direction".6 Analysts fear an uptick in violence before the election, and severe doubts remain over the country's volatile north, but at the moment all the trends are in the right direction. Even Iran appears to view the agreement favourably, with U.S. and Iraqi officials pointing out that far fewer Iranian explosives - by far the biggest killer of U.S. troops in Iraq in recent years - are being found in Iraq nowadays. From a high of 80 a month last year, the figure is now just 12.7

It would be foolish to predict exactly what course of action Obama will take when he becomes president. However, if the SOFA seems to meet with the broad approval of the Iraqi public, do not expect him to deviate from it markedly. It would be foolish to rock the boat at one of the rare moments in this war when the stars seemed aligned; even more than foolish, it would be a churlish mortgaging of the future for the sake of the past. Iraq may yet have many nasty surprises in store, but at this moment we can be forgiven the expression of guarded optimism; the future of the land of the two rivers is now truly in the hands of its native inhabitants to do with as they will. This was the whole point of this war. Let them find peace, in'sh'Allah.

1. "iCasualties: Iraq Coalition Casualty Count", http://icasualties.org/oif/

2. "Iraq Body Count", http://www.iraqbodycount.org/database/

3. "Iraq", http://www.albany.edu/history/middle-east/iraq.htm

4. "Some U.S. Troops May Stay in Iraqi Cities Beyond Deadline", The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122917052669504345.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

5. "Security agreement puts 16,000 Iraqi detainees at risk of torture", http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/security-agreement-puts-16000-iraqi-detainees-risk-torture-20081128

6. "A world of trouble awaits Obama and his national security team", Politico but accessible at http://www.twincities.com/ci_11155011?nclick_check=1

7. "US general: Iran backs off worst bombs in Iraq", Associated Press, http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gg4qLR7c7rPKhLqa-kxjsTP4XQigD9510G4G0

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