Despite Agreement, US Future in Iraq Unclear

Friday, 28 November 2008 11:57 By Maya Schenwar, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Despite Agreement, US Future in Iraq Unclear
Sunset in Iraq. (Photo: Getty Images)

    Iraq's Parliament passed the US-Iraq security pact by a slim majority on Wednesday, requiring that US troops withdraw from Iraq by 2011, unless the Iraqi people vote for a quicker withdrawal next year. The agreement is a muddle of triumphs and disappointments.

    The pact - termed a status of forces agreement (SOFA) - has seen considerable revision since its early stages. To the rejoicing of activists on both sides, it now sets a timetable for withdrawal, a provision the Bush administration previously refused to consider.

    However, as some in Parliament have pointed out, a three-year timetable is twice as long as the one suggested by President-elect Obama, and under the pact, either side needs to give a one-year warning before canceling it. So, when Obama takes office, he couldn't nix the SOFA by command.

    Added to Wednesday's version of the SOFA was a provision important to many in Parliament: the requirement of a public referendum. In July 2009, the Iraqi people will vote on whether the pact should stay in place. If they reject it, though, it will still remain valid for another year - until mid-2010 - due to the one-year-warning clause.

    Iraqis are quite likely to vote the pact down, preferring a quicker withdrawal, according to Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. Although some in the government may try to "play games" and prevent the referendum from moving forward as planned, many in Iraq will push for a timely public vote, according to Jarrar. Polls in Iraqi media have shown that most Iraqis oppose the pact's three-year time frame.

    The SOFA has gotten as far as it has largely because the government's executive branch, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and backed by the Bush administration, has pushed ardently for its passage, and itself approved the agreement almost unanimously two weeks ago.

    "The vast majority of Iraqis are against it," Ali al-Fadhily, an independent correspondent living in Baghdad, told Truthout. "But those in power realize that it is the US existence in Iraq that keeps them in power, and so they [were] keen on signing it as soon as possible regardless of its conflict with the interests of Iraq and its people."

    The legislature was a tougher fight: Since Iraq's Parliament is more representative of the people than the cabinet, controversy over the agreement raged on until the moment of the vote - especially since the proceedings did not follow the guidelines prescribed by Iraq's Constitution. The pact vote was taken without first passing Iraq's "law to ratify international treaties and agreements," which would have governed how the SOFA was considered and voted on.

    Also, Jarrar notes that when the cabinet passed the pact, it agreed to send it to Parliament "in accordance with Article 61 of the Constitution," which requires a two-thirds majority for passage. However, Thursday's vote in Parliament was determined by simple majority - a procedure that follows a now-obsolete "Saddam-era law," according to Jarrar.

    If Parliament's leaders would have followed current law and required a two-thirds majority - 183 votes - for passage, the security pact would have failed.

    However, says Jarrar, the referendum mandate mitigates the impact of the Constitutional violations.

    Despite the addition of the referendum, some groups in Parliament, including followers of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, remained opposed to any occupation-legitimizing agreement. Sadr's followers vowed to protest the pact's passage.

    On the US side, negotiations on the pact have been cloaked in secrecy. The official English version of the final agreement was withheld - from the public and from Congress - throughout most of the past few weeks' negotiations. At a recent House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on the pact, testifiers had to use a translated version supplied by Jarrar. Congressman Bill Delahunt, chairman of the subcommittee, criticized the administration's covert handling of the pact.

    "We must not forget that this agreement has just been provided to Congress – and that there has been no time to conduct the analysis required by such a significant document," Delahunt said at the hearing. "Even now, the National Security Council has requested that we do not show this document to our witnesses or release it to the public – a public that for over five years has paid so dearly with blood and treasure ... But this is typical of the Bush administration and its unhealthy and undemocratic obsession with secrecy."

    Foreign Policy in Focus Fellow Erik Leaver sees a jarring disconnect between the processes of SOFA consideration in Iraq and in the US.

    "How ironic it is that a country we sought to bring democracy to is reading and debating the agreement, while in the US there isn't even an official translation of the document for the public," Leaver told Truthout.

    According to Jarrar, working from a leaked copy of the English version of the agreement, some "discrepancies in translation" exist, which could lead to misunderstandings. Discrepancies also exist between the US and Iraqi interpretations of the pact: While an Iraqi government spokesman stated last week that the agreement would ensure that all American troops leave by December 2011, American commanders said otherwise.

    "Three years is a long time. Conditions could change in that period of time," Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated at a Defense Department briefing last week. When asked whether the agreement's absolute 2011 deadline could be extended, Mullen replied, "Well, clearly that's theoretically possible."

    The language of the agreement is vague enough that it could be bent to allow such "possibilities." One clause states that, according to joint decisions, the US may respond militarily to "security threats" against Iraq, and will continue its "close collaboration" in supporting, training and maintaining the Iraqi army - all of which could keep US troops in Iraq beyond 2011.

    Moreover, some of the pact's security commitments are surprisingly broad and vague, according to Leaver. It states that the US will defend Iraq against "external or internal danger ... against Iraq or an aggression upon ... its sovereignty, its political stability, the unity of its land, water, and airspace ... [and] its democratic system or its elected establishments."

    "This is a pretty wide open commitment," Leaver said. "For example, if Sadr was made Prime Minister, would the US protect him? Iraq's upcoming elections could leave Iraq fairly politically unstable."

    Beyond its consequences in Iraq, the approval of the pact sets a dangerous precedent for the expansion of executive power in the United States. The agreement far overreaches the bounds of typical executive-only SOFAs: it grants US troops the "authority to fight," and Congress is the branch vested with the power to declare war. Yet the Bush administration drafted and negotiated the pact with the Iraqi government without consulting Congress. Bush's actions carve out a whole new arena of presidential power for history to soak up, according to Steve Fox, director of the American Freedom Campaign.

    "The Bush administration has effectively expanded the scope of what a SOFA covers, and since there has been no formal objection from Congress, future presidents will now claim they have the same power to unilaterally negotiate far-reaching international agreements," Fox told Truthout.

    The American Freedom campaign proposes that Congress pass a "signing statement resolution," asserting that since the Iraq SOFA is unconstitutional, Congress need not provide funding to carry it out.

    "Such a resolution, which would still allow Congress to fund the agreement if they feel compelled by the Obama administration to do so, could be passed by both the House and the Senate the week of December 8," Fox said. "If congressional leaders cannot bring themselves to take that one minor step, then the damage to their institution may be irreversible."

Last modified on Saturday, 29 November 2008 09:12