Agreement to withdraw or permission to remain?

In November, the Iraqi and US governments finally signed a long-discussed and much-disputed security agreement. The agreement provides for the possibility of a US troop withdrawal by 2011, but it would seem to be more a permission to postpone a full withdrawal indefinitely.

Before the signing, there had been disputes over every little detail of the agreement, including over the name. While the US government called it the "Status of Forces Agreement" and sometimes simply the "Security Agreement", the Iraqi government chose to call it the "Agreement for the Withdrawal of American Forces". The US administration did not object to this since it knew the Iraqi government was in an embarrassing position. It was, after all, negotiating a prolongation of the presence of occupying forces in a country that was declared fully sovereign in 2005.

The SOFA affords US forces a guaranteed and facilitated presence in Iraq until 2011 and is an extension and enlargement of the November 2007 Declaration of Principles and Cooperation, which passed unnoticed and stipulated cooperation in three areas, the political and diplomatic, economic and security fields. Yet despite all the fuss around it, all opposition evaporated when it came to crunch time, and the agreement was passed by the Iraqi government and approved by parliament with a simple majority. Indeed, rumors circulated that the Iraqi and American governments spared little expense in securing MPs’ approval. Certainly, the difference between the vocal opposition of most parliament members to the SOFA and their eventual acquiescence set tongues wagging.

The Iraqi government and pro-government parliament members justified their position by saying that after seven months of negotiations and amendments, the last version of the SOFA was the best possible and would surely lead to the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. They also argued that the Iraqi SOFA is better than all similar agreements the USA has signed with different countries in the past half a century, including with Turkey, Japan and Germany.

What nobody said was that until the SOFA was approved by the Iraqi parliament, nobody in the government, apart from the negotiating team, or in parliament had seen or were allowed to study the agreement in detail. And it was later discovered that the version approved in parliament was the poorly translated Arabic version. The detailed English original, with all its attached protocols, annexes, etc., was not released until approval was secured.

In both versions, the clause about withdrawal in 2011 is clear. But those who were able to study the two versions insist that there are nevertheless significant differences between the two. The devil is in details such as the clause that stipulates that any renewal of the agreement can be done by the two governments alone and does not need parliamentary approval, or the clause that deprives each party of the option of withdrawing or annulling the agreement unilaterally.

Cracks in the apparent resolve to rid Iraq of US troops have in fact already appeared. Last week, an Iraqi government spokesman declared in Washington that Iraqi security forces would need ten years before they were ready to replace US forces. Meanwhile, the senior US commander in Iraq said his forces would not leave the centers of cities by June, as indicated in the SOFA.

The agreement also includes a clause that allows US forces to act freely and without Iraqi approval to fight "terrorism" in and around Iraq. This, obviously, is a very elastic term, and essentially means blanket permission to liquidate any elements inside Iraq or in Iran and Syria at US discretion in addition to constituting implicit permission to stay as long as there is "terrorist" danger.

These shortcomings and loopholes are entirely to be expected. No one could possibly have believed that the US came so far and fought so long without also achieving its main objectives of securing the supply of oil, preserving the security of Israel and silencing dissent in the Arab world. Many Iraqi politicians reached their positions on the SOFA entirely out of narrow political interests. Some believe their eminence in Iraqi politics cannot be guaranteed without an American presence; some feel the exact opposite.

In the middle stand the majority who resent the SOFA for being simply a different face of the same colonialism, a legitimization of the presence of US forces. The agreement has deprived Iraqis of the right to compensation for the destruction of their country and the killing of their compatriots. It also omitted any mention of rebuilding Iraq. It was, in short, an entirely undeserved victory for the outgoing neo-conservative US administration.