RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Middle East expert and former National Security Council adviser Steven Simon, of the Council on Foreign Relations, to explain the controversy and predict what will happen.
RFE/RL: Could you explain why a U.S.-Iraq security pact is needed?
Steve Simon: There are two agreements in the works. One is a "status-of-forces agreement," which is necessary because if you’ve got your military forces in another country, their presence there needs to be regulated. Because, young men, all in uniform, carrying guns, and having the run of the place can make trouble.
You know, I say this in a very jocular way, but it actually becomes a very serious issue. And if your troops are going to make trouble, there needs to be some prior agreement with the host country as to how that trouble gets resolved. Who has judicial responsibility when there’s a problem? And these things need to be negotiated, and the results of the negotiation codified in a "status-of-forces" agreement.
RFE/RL: And the other agreement the United States is seeking with Iraq?
Simon: The other agreement is meant to give shape and content to the future of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship across a range of topic areas, from the economy to security. And on security, there are some provisions in the agreement that are a bit vexing both to Iraqis and to some Americans.
RFE/RL: Last week thousands of followers of the Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr protested the idea of a joint U.S.-Iraqi agreement, shouting things like, “No to the occupation!” Sunnis also oppose the deal, saying it will compromise national sovereignty and “Iraqi interests.” Members of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government have called for major changes to the draft agreements. What is their opposition based on?
Simon: Well, there’s a history here. Because of their experience with the British, who at one time occupied Iraq -- in fact, they did for many years, on and off -- there’s a tremendous sensitivity among Iraqis about being under foreign domination. And certainly since 1958, they’ve considered themselves to be completely independent of foreign rule. And the way in which the United States has gone about pursuing an agreement, which many believe is meant to pave the way for a long-term military presence, has reminded Iraqis, rather unpleasantly, of their experience with the British.
So, in a nutshell, an agreement of the sort the U.S. seems to be seeking right now is bringing to the surface Iraqi fears of a long-term foreign domination, and they just don’t like that.
RFE/RL: It’s been reported that U.S. negotiators have certain demands that they are trying to put in the final agreement. Among the most controversial are granting U.S. forces the ability to arrest and detain Iraqis and to enjoy immunity from Iraqi laws. Then there’s the issue of military bases. The lead State Department negotiator, David Satterfield, told Al-Jazeera that the United States rejects the idea of "permanent bases." But to many Iraqis, long-term lease agreements are the same thing as permament occupation. How is the United States going to get Iraq to sign off on this?
Simon: Look, I am hard-pressed to see this flying with Iraqis. You know, if an American rapes an Iraqi woman, and the U.S. says, "Well, we have a status-of-forces agreement that says we will take care of this problem and it’s none of Iraq’s business," popular feeling in Iraq will be aroused. I think there will be some serious anger. And I think Iraqi authorities who are negotiating these agreements are very aware of these pitfalls. The long-term leases [are] just right out of the British book, and I think that that’s going to rub a lot of Iraqis seriously the wrong way.
But there’s another side to this, too, which is how well this agreement is going to fly on the U.S. side, in terms of American domestic politics. Because one of the agreements, in its current draft, offers U.S. security assurances to Iraq. And, you know, American lawmakers who will have to approve this agreement -- if the final version contains phrases like that -- are going to look askance at those sorts of assurances. They’re going to say, "Why should we do this?" And they’re going to ask certain questions, like "What is the Iraqi government’s relationship to Iran?" and "What’s the nature of Iran’s influence in Iraq? How do the Iraqis view Israel? Do they view Israel as an enemy?"
And, depending on the answers to those questions, American legislators are going to say: "Well, no. This is not a state that the United States ought to be promising help for, in some kind of contingency."
RFE/RL: Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki has said that any agreement must be approved by the Iraqi parliament. But isn't the White House arguing that these are administrative agreements, which don’t need the approval of the Iraqi parliament -- or the U.S. Congress, for that matter?
Simon: That absolutely is what the White House is saying. And I strongly doubt that the agreement in its current form will be viewed, certainly on the American side, as something that can be negotiated solely as a matter of administrative arrangements, between two governments. I think they’re going to look at the current document very much as a treaty arrangement. And in my experience, when you have draft agreements that offer security assurances, then that agreement crosses a threshold in American law, under which the agreement is required to be submitted to Congress for approval.
So I think the [Bush] administration is certainly very eager to cast it as an administrative agreement so as to keep it out of public view and keep it away from Congress. But I don’t think that Congress -- especially a Democratic Congress -- is going to take very kindly to that.
RFE/RL: The United States initially said it wanted to have an agreement by July, but that seems impossible, given the opposition that has sprung up. The U.S. election on November 4 will bring in a new president, and then the UN mandate expires on December 31. Considering these time pressures, what do you see happening in the next few months with the negotiations?
Simon: I think the way the parties will try and get around this is either to have the UN mandate extended, or put together a skeletal agreement that is cast as an interim arrangement that will buy time and form a bridge between whatever the current arrangement is and whatever the next arrangement might be. So there are two work-arounds, and I suspect that one or the other will be employed.