Debate Flares Over U.S. Security Pact
The talks are intended to establish the legal conditions under which U.S. troops will remain in Iraq after their UN mandate expires at the end this year.
Not a great deal is known publicly about the details of the negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Washington and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. That is because both sides are keeping their negotiating stances secret -- precisely to avoid the slowdown of a larger public debate.
But the strategy is producing unintended consequences. In the absence of information, Iraq's fractious politicians have become the public's main source for information about the deal and the tension level is rising steadily.
"We have found a formulation marked by arrogance, dictates, and coercion toward the Iraqi side," Husayn al-Falluji, a leading member of the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Accordance Front, told Radio Free Iraq on June 11.
"If we have to choose between this agreement and Iraq remaining internationalized under Chapter 7 [of the UN Charter], we are for keeping Iraq at the mercy of Chapter 7 rather than the mercy of a U.S. presence entailing a more uncertain future than at present," al-Falluji added.
Some politicians have gone further, saying Baghdad has put forward its own terms in an apparent showdown with Washington:
"There are in fact two drafts on the table, one presented by the American negotiators and the other from their Iraqi counterparts," Hassan al-Sinaid, a member of the parliament's Security and Defense Committee, told Radio Free Iraq earlier this week.
"The U.S. draft contains extensive, open-ended powers to be enjoyed by the U.S. forces in terms of strength, movement, and tasks," he said. "That is why the Iraqi delegation has rejected these provisions in their entirety as a violation of Iraq's sovereignty."
Often, the debate over the SOFA has the air of a virtual reality, because there is no way to independently verify what is actually being negotiated. On the one hand, there are reported leaks from Iraqi officials and party leaders. On the other hand, there are statements from Washington and Baghdad that all that is under discussion is proposals, with nothing fixed yet.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has dismissed much of what Iraqi politicians say is being discussed, yet added no details of his own.
"This furor that has been kicked up [about the agreement] is politically motivated," Zebari told Radio Free Iraq recently. "It is political posturing because we have made it clear from the beginning that there will be no secret provisions or attachments. When we have an agreement it will be submitted to parliament, to the representatives of the people for approval."
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh has also sought to calm tensions. "Nothing has been finalized," he said on June 11. "It takes time for ideas to mature and converge. The Iraqi delegation is committed to safeguarding Iraq's sovereignty in every step and in all talks."
Terms Of Agreement
The SOFA is widely reported to contain the following terms: The United States wants to maintain 58 long-term bases in Iraq after the UN mandate for international forces expires at the end of this year.
Iraqi officials say Washington also wants the U.S. troops to be able to continue hunting down and engaging enemy combatants without prior approval from Baghdad.
And Iraqi officials say Washington wants authority to detain and hold Iraqis without turning them over to the Iraqi judicial system and wants immunity from Iraqi prosecution for both U.S. troops and private security contractors.
Finally, Washington is also reported to want continued control over Iraq's airspace, including the right to refuel planes in the air.
Washington has not commented on these reported terms. U.S. President George W. Bush has only said the agreement contains what is necessary to guarantee Iraq's security and stability.
"I strongly support the agreement because I think it helps send a clear message to the people of Iraq that security they're now seeing will continue," Bush told reporters in Germany on June 11.
"And one of the lessons of Iraq is that in order for a democracy to develop, in order for an economy to develop, there has to be a measure of security, which is now happening," he added. "So, I think we'll get the agreement done. And as I said clearly in past speeches, this will not involve permanent bases, nor will it bind any future president to troop levels."
Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki agreed in November last year on the need for providing a legal basis for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq to defend it against threats and encourage foreign investment to support reconstruction. Washington set a goal for completing the deal by the end of July.
But as the debate among Iraqi politicians grows, it's becoming increasingly unclear whether the SOFA -- at least in its reported terms -- could gain parliamentary approval.
The difficultly of trying to predict passage was further complicated this week by some Iraqi lawmakers saying on that the United States has submitted new proposals to soften Iraqi opposition.
The U.S. State Department's top adviser for Iraq, David Satterfield, did not comment on the talks' progress as he visited Baghdad on June 10. However, he said Washington is confident an agreement "can be achieved, and by the end-of-July deadline," and that "we want to see Iraqi sovereignty strengthened, not weakened."
The United States has more than 80 bilateral agreements in countries where U.S. forces are stationed. But the SOFA negotiations with Iraq are particularly complex because the U.S. forces are engaged in combat in the country and are supplemented in security efforts by tens of thousands of private contractors.
The negotiations are also complicated by Iran's fierce opposition to any deal. Tehran, which has strong ties with Iraq's ruling Shi'ite political parties, has accused Washington of seeking a base in Iraq for attacking Iran. Washington denies any such intention.
In an effort to learn more about the usual terms for SOFAs, a delegation of Iraqi parliamentarians is now on a fact-finding trip to some of the other countries with which Washington has such accords. The delegation is due back in Iraq this week.
The coming days will tell whether this and other efforts to bridge the reported differences between the U.S. and Iraqi positions bear fruit.
If they do not, the fallback position is one that has little appeal for either Washington or Baghdad. That is to extend the UN mandate on Iraq in order to gain the time to try to negotiate a SOFA anew next year.
Al-Maliki Seeks To Reassure IranIn talks with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought to ease Iranian fears over the proposed U.S.-Iraq security deal.
On the second day of a two-day visit to Iran, al-Malik was quoted as saying on June 8 that he "will not allow Iraq to become a platform for harming the security of Iran and neighbors."
After talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki late on June 7, Iran's state-controlled media quoted al-Maliki as saying his government placed great value on Iran's security. State broadcaster IRIB said on its website that al-Maliki also met with Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei.
Iran opposes the negotiations going on between Baghdad and Washington, which are aimed at regulating the presence of U.S. forces in the country after their United Nations mandate expires at the end of 2008. Iran says it will lead to permanent U.S. bases on its doorstep in Iraq.
Iran's concerns come amid renewed international tensions over its nuclear program, which the United States fears is aimed at making nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran rejects.
The Iraqi and Iranian sides were also due to discuss alleged Iranian interference in Iraq, including Tehran's support for Shi’ite militias, who fought bitter battles with U.S. and Iraqi government forces earlier this year.
The U.S. allegations were reinforced on June 8 when the military announced the arrest in Baghdad of an Iraqi arms dealer and "assassination squad" leader responsible for trafficking Shi’ite militants in and out of Iran for training.
The visit to Iran is the second this year by al-Maliki, who is also a Shi’ite political leader, while Ahmadinejad made a landmark visit to Iraq three months ago.
During the Saddam Hussein era, Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war that killed some 1 million people. But after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Hussein's regime, Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government brought improved ties with Tehran.
compiled from agency reports
U.S. Faces Opposition On Security-Pact NegotiationsWhen the United Nations mandate that governs the U.S. presence in Iraq expires in December, a new agreement between the two countries will be needed. U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have been trying to agree on the terms of a security pact that will allow U.S. forces to remain in the country and protect U.S. interests. Everything from judicial immunity for U.S. troops to long-term leases on military bases is being discussed. But most Iraqis oppose any deal that would allow the United States to establish a long-term presence in the country, saying it compromises their national sovereignty.
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.
International Conference Opens With Appeals For SupportDelegates from nearly 100 countries and organizations are meeting amid tight security outside the Swedish capital, Stockholm, to discuss the rebuilding and development of Iraq.
The meeting is the first-annual review of a five-year plan launched last year to help bring economic growth and political stability to Iraq. It comes as the Unites States says violence in Iraq is at its lowest level in more than four years.
Issues on the agenda include Iraq’s debt relief, economic reconstruction, elections, corruption, the oil industry, and the refugee crisis. More than 500 participants in the conference also are expected to look into ways of integrating more Sunnis into Iraqi government structures.
Major figures attending the conference include UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
Speaking at a news conference with Reinfeldt, Rice urged the international community to reward Iraq with developmental aid for its efforts to improve security and enact political reforms.
"This isn't a donor conference. The Iraqis don't need large sums of money," Rice said. "They do need large infusions of technical assistance, project support, helping to build adequate police forces, helping to build an adequate justice system, helping to build the capacity to execute their large budgets down to the provincial and the local levels. These are the kinds of things that -- now that the security situation is improving -- I would hope the international community would accelerate its efforts to help make Iraq a capable state."
Reinfeldt called on the world community to support rebuilding efforts.
"We stand ready to support the government of Iraq and all Iraqis in the quest for a secure, sovereign, democratic, united, and prosperous country, where the human rights of all are fully respected," Reinfeldt said.
Al-Maliki is expected to push for relief from debt dating back to Saddam Hussein's regime. Reports say Iraq has at least $67 billion in foreign debt, most of it owed to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Al-Maliki has said Iraq also wants countries to reopen their embassies in Baghdad.
One Word: 'Hope'
In comments made at the summit, Ban acknowledged that Iraq still faces major challenges, but he said there is hope for reconciliation among its peoples.
"The Iraqi people continue to suffer from acts of terrorism, sectarian violence, and criminality," Ban said. "Many endure forced displacement and human rights violations, especially women and minorities. Essential services are still sorely lacking. Nonetheless, if we were asked to use just one word to describe the situation today, I would choose the word 'hope.’ "
Sunnis prevailed in politics under Hussein's rule but were relegated when his regime was toppled in 2003. The majority Shi'a and Kurds have since dominated the government, while Sunnis make up the bulk of the insurgency. There are ongoing efforts to further integrate Sunnis into Iraqi politics.
On the eve of the conference, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said efforts are under way to agree on a date for local elections aimed at decentralizing power.
compiled from agency reports
Elusive Cease-Fire In Al-Sadr City Begs New Questions
The announcement was made on May 11, but gunfire and explosions could still be heard the following day in the volatile district as fighting continued around the 3-mile barrier that U.S. forces are erecting to block extremists from infiltrating the southern section of Al-Sadr City to fire rockets on the capital's International Zone, the seat of the Iraqi national government and headquarters for U.S. military and diplomatic offices.
"It doesn't look like a cease-fire to me," U.S. Army Major Kyle Ferger, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, said. "Just last night there were more than a dozen [incidents] along the wall.
"The wall's a magnet for them. They just keep on attacking."
U.S. authorities said troops killed three gunmen in clashes late on May 11 and early the next day. Ferger said al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army -- or Iranian-influenced "Special Group" linked to it -- fired on troops using rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. There were also a number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that went off.
The wall, made of 4-meter-high concrete slabs, stretches along Al-Quds Street along the northern edges of the Tharwa and Jamilla neighborhoods. It was begun in mid-April to block Shi'ite extremists from infiltrating the area through cross streets. Citizens can still travel between the southern and northern sections of Al-Sadr City but will have to use three main crossings where Iraqi soldiers search vehicles for weapons and munitions.
As of May 11, the wall was 75-percent complete and would be finished by the end of the week, according to Feger.
Al-Sadr City, located in the northeastern part of Baghdad, is the stronghold of al-Sadr, a political rival of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Last year, al-Sadr declared a cease-fire with the government that helped bring new security to the capital, but he rescinded it in late March when the Iraqi Army took on Shi'ite gunmen, including al-Sadr's forces, in the southern port city of Al-Basrah amid spiraling lawlessness.
Fighting spread to Al-Sadr City, from where 107-millimeter and 120-millimeter rockets were launched almost daily on the International Zone. Shi'ite gunmen in mid-April also overran a number of Iraqi Army posts in the southern portion of the district. Those posts were retaken with U.S. help after some Iraqi Army units deserted.
According to reports, the new cease-fire calls for al-Sadr's forces to surrender their medium and heavy weapons. The government agreed to open all roads into Al-Sadr City, which the United Nations said is suffering from shortages of food and water.
Iraqi troops would reportedly be allowed to enter the district to search for criminals, but additional details of the cease-fire were reportedly still being worked out in negotiations between the government and representatives of al-Sadr, who is believed living in Iran.
It was also unclear whether al-Sadr's representatives could bring about compliance by the Special Groups.
"[The new cease-fire] is a lie," Iraqi Army Colonel Yehea Resol Abdala said on May 12 in reference to militants adhering to it. "Just an hour ago, they attacked my soldiers. We know these people; we've fought them before. If they don't surrender their weapons, they must be squashed."
Ironically, in the same hour in which word on May 10 was first received of the cease-fire, 11 IEDs could be heard from the colonel's Jamilla-neighborhood office.
Yehea is commander of an Iraqi Army division that operates in the Jamilla area. His unit stood firm and fought off Al-Mahdi Army and Special Group gunmen when they launched concerted, coordinated attacks on government positions on April 19.
Yehea, like his troops, is a Shi'a from Al-Sadr City and said government forces must be in the city or there will be no peace. "The Special Groups don't take their orders from al-Sadr," he said. "They take their orders from Iran."
U.S. and Iraqi authorities suspect Iran of having trained some Special Group elements, and they accuse Iran of providing extremists with explosively formed penetrator (EFP) bombs, which pierce armored vehicles. Iran denies both.