But based on the comments of some Sunni and Shi'ite leaders, it appears few read or understood the intent of the declaration. Moreover, the basic lack of understanding demonstrated by some Sunni politicians suggests they either did not attend the parliament reading of the agreement or they slept through it.
Critics of the agreement argue that it paves the way for a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq. Iraqi officials have denied that, saying any formal U.S. request for bases -- and none have been made -- would be the subject of negotiations that are set to continue until July, when a formal cooperation agreement will be signed.
National security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told Al-Arabiyah television on December 10: "We will not accept [permanent military bases] in any form whatsoever and will not approve it, and I believe the Council of Representatives will not approve it. The Iraqi people reject the presence of permanent bases in Iraq." He did concede that "we can talk about facilities for example, certain security agreements. We might talk about some arrangements, but fixed and permanent bases cannot be acceptable."
However, there is reason to believe the critics' fears are not completely unfounded. U.S. Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, Bush's adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has said negotiations over the coming months will address "what U.S. troops are doing, how many troops are required to do that, are bases required, which partners will join them -- all these things are on the negotiating table."
According to the White House, the agreement "sets the U.S. and Iraq on a path toward negotiating agreements that are common throughout the world." The statement said the United States has security relationships with over 100 countries, including recent agreements with Afghanistan and former Soviet bloc countries.
The agreement also calls for U.S. political, diplomatic, cultural, and economic support for Iraq, and was based on a communique signed on August 26 by al-Maliki, the three members of the Presidency Council, and Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani. The August communique called for "the necessity of reaching a long-term relationship with the American side...that is built on common interests and covers the various areas between the Republic of Iraq and the United States of America."
Critics Demand U.S. Withdrawal
Several politicians complained in the media that the declaration should have included a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces, despite al-Maliki's remarks at the announcement of the declaration that the presence of U.S. forces, which comprise the majority of foreign troops on the ground in Iraq, would be determined through negotiations leading up to the signing of a binding agreement in July. Critics also ignored al-Maliki's observation that Iraq intends to end the presence of multinational forces by the end of 2008.
Sunni legislator Salih al-Mutlaq, who leads the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, said he opposed the agreement because "it did not refer to the withdrawal of foreign forces in the short term." "This contravenes the desire of numerous political forces, who call for the withdrawal of the occupiers before discussing a national-unity government and a sound political process," the London-based "Al-Hayat" reported on November 28.
The Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni group that opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq and does not recognize the Iraqi government as a legitimate body, issued a statement on November 28 claiming Bush, by signing an agreement with al-Maliki, whom many in the U.S. consider a failed ruler, has encouraged the country's ruin, "backing the establishments that will destroy [Iraq] and establishing the dictatorship of those whom [Bush] brought to power."
The association's statement added: "Iraq is being sold the way a slave sells something to his master, a slave whose only concern is to remain in power, and for this purpose, is prepared to give away the entire country."
Parliamentarian Zafir al-Ani, from the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front expressed reservations over the agreement, saying it's a contract made by two parties who are not on equal footing, "Al-Quds al-Arabi" reported on November 29. Al-Ani argued the agreement would pave the way for U.S. interference in Iraqi affairs on all levels. His colleague, Harith al-Ubaydi, was a bit more pragmatic, telling the daily that the front was not opposed to agreements as long as they did not harm Iraq's sovereignty or interests.
Meanwhile, Accordance Front spokesman Salim al-Juburi told Al-Jazeera on December 2 that Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi warned the U.S. Embassy of his reservations over the agreement's security component, saying it could make Iraq vulnerable to a veiled occupation down the road. Al-Juburi also claimed the agreement ignored issues such as national reconciliation and reconstruction. Both issues are in fact addressed in the declaration of principles. Al-Hashimi later told participants at a regional security conference in Bahrain that he supports the agreement. "I think the agreement we will sign with the United States will be a good thing," he said on December 9.
Parliamentarians and political leaders aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr adopted a position similar to that of Sunni detractors, claiming the agreement conflicted with their efforts to secure a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. Falah Shanshal said al-Sadr supporters would outright reject "any document" committing Iraq to a security agreement with the United States. Al-Sadr spokesman Liwa Sumaysim contended the agreement should have been sent to parliament and put to a referendum. Al-Maliki's supporters have countered that the declaration is not a treaty and as such, does not require ratification.
Al-Maliki Allies Defend Agreement
Other Shi'ite politicians displayed a greater understanding of the declaration of principles and what the government hopes to achieve in the coming months of negotiations.
Shi'ite parliamentarian Hajim al-Hasani told Al-Fayha television on November 27: "Some sides fear that the document will lead to a long-term agreement" for a U.S. military presence in Iraq, he said. "I think we have to wait and see what kind of agreement there will be.... When the agreement is presented to the Council of Representatives, the deputies can sit together and have a deep analysis to decide what serves the interests of the Iraqis and what does not. They can then approve it or reject it."
Council of Representatives deputy speaker Khalid al-Attiyah told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on December 5 that the most important principles in the declaration were discussed in a closed session of parliament "that was documented and recorded." He said the political blocs in parliament welcomed the clause stating 2008 "will be the last extension" of the multinational forces' mandate. Al-Attiyah said the conclusion of a formal agreement in July will put Iraq "on equal footing with the United States as a free, independent, and fully sovereign state."
Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), praised the agreement while on a trip to Washington in early December calling it part of a broader effort to restore Iraq's full sovereignty. SIIC parliamentarian Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, who is also the imam and preacher of the Al-Buratha Mosque, told his followers in a November 30 Friday Prayer sermon that the agreement was good for Iraq.
If al-Maliki is to gain broad support for a formal U.S.-Iraq agreement in July, he and his allies in parliament will have to work to explain what a formal agreement would entail, and convince detractors that such an agreement would not pose a threat to Iraq's sovereignty. Gaining the support of the traditional oppositionists -- al-Sadr allies and many Sunni Arab politicians -- will be difficult, but not insurmountable. Reconciliation and political accommodation will be a key factor. Both groups will want to see the government set a fixed timetable for the pullout of foreign forces, which should not be a problem for al-Maliki's administration, considering that a significant draw-down of U.S. troops is expected by the end of 2008.
Equally important for the Sadrists, who were once aligned with the prime minister, would be a resolution to the political standoff with the al-Maliki government that would enable parliamentarians who boycotted the government to return to work. For Sunni Arab parties, real progress in terms of national reconciliation must be achieved. The government will need to engage more actively in reconciliation talks, and encourage the parliament to ratify the draft Justice and Accountability Law, which paves the way for former Ba'athists to return to the government and military jobs they held under Saddam Hussein. Such a move would greatly aid the reconciliation process.