US and Iraq grapple with US troop deployment extension

US and Iraqi leaders discuss future Status of Forces Agreement for Iraq. Syrian tanks and troops deployed to Homs. Rumours of Mubarak coma denied as protestors fill Tahrir square. All in today's security briefing.
Jaffar Al-Rikabi
18 July 2011

US and Iraqi leaders are intensifying behind-the-scenes talks to address the question of whether some US troops should remain in Iraq beyond the end of this year deadline set out by the US-Iraq Status-of-Forces Agreement signed in December 2008. Two weeks ago, the White House went public with an offer to keep up to 10,000 troops. Following the announcement, rival Iraqi political leaders held a rare meeting, and declared that they would try to reach a unanimous decision on the matter within two weeks.

Building support amongst Iraq’s key parties is a requirement for a prolonged presence of U.S. troops, regardless of its specific mandate. While in the US presidents have powers to sign executive agreements that are distinguished from formal treaties requiring senate approval, in Iraq no such powers exist. Thus, Prime Minister Maliki is compelled to go to the Iraqi Council of Representatives (COR) for approval of any extension of US military presence, with a 2/3rd majority required for the bill to become law.

If a renewed mandate is not granted by the Iraqi COR, then the 31 December 2011 deadline for the withdrawal of all US forces will have to be honoured. Under Plan B, a small number of US military and intelligence personnel – likely numbering no more than a hundred or two – can nevertheless remain in Iraq in a training and technical capacity if the prime minister and the ministry of defence request their continued assistance.  

The openSecurity verdict: A renewed SOFA with new timelines and prerogatives will be notoriously difficult to achieve, even if both governments quietly recognise the need for one. Three factors account for this difficulty: the challenge of reaching consensus on the specific provisions of the new agreement; America’s internal politics; and even more so, Iraq’s internal politics.

The US-Iraq Pact of 2008 was the result of very tough bargaining and negotiations that dominated relations between the two governments in 2008, especially from June onwards. Still, neither side was satisfied with the outcome, and in any renewed negotiations, both sides will be pressing for more concessions.

From the Iraqi viewpoint, three issues will likely be of particular concern: jurisdiction, use rights and a new timeline.

In 2008, Iraqis initially demanded primary jurisdiction over US military personnel and contractors. Famous flashpoints such as the Blackwater incident of September 2007 were cited by Iraqis keen to ‘win-back’ full sovereignty. This request was then, and still is today, unacceptable to Americans who point to the 105 or more SOFAs they have concluded worldwide, none of which accept such terms. Against full US primary jurisdiction, Iraqis in 2008 pointed out that the US had accepted “concurrent jurisdiction” with her Nato allies and with Japan. To this, Americans responded by reminding Iraqis that in those cases, the US military was not involved in active combat. The compromise that was eventually struck in Article 12 required direct discussions between President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki. Iraq would have primary jurisdiction over any contractors, the two leaders agreed, while the US would continue to have primary jurisdiction over its regular armed forces except if “grave premeditated crimes” off-duty take place – something that has not occurred, and remains unlikely to.

Importantly, Article 12, paragraph 10 of the SOFA permits for a more generous re-wording of its provisions in future, directly linking this to the extent of US military involvement in active combat in Iraq, security conditions on the ground, and the state of the Iraqi judiciary. In other words, American negotiators were happy to concede giving Iraq similar terms to the Nato SOFA, if and when actual conditions in Iraq improved. In any renewed negotiations, Iraqis will now likely push hard for such a re-wording.

If compromise can be reached on jurisdiction, use rights and a new timeline will likely be other areas of dispute. Some US military strategists seek a long-term presence in Iraq and for the US to have prerogatives including the initiative to launch special operations against perceived threats such as Iranian-backed militias. Such views, if translated into formal requests by US diplomats, will likely be rebuffed by an Iraqi government keen to stress its independence and sovereignty to both its people and regional power centres including Tehran, Ankara and Riyadh.

Consensus on new terms represents only one side of the problem. Iraqi and US governments will likely face intense internal resistance. With a mounting debt crisis, a new war in Libya and a prolonged presence in Afghanistan, it is questionable whether President Obama has the appetite to exert as much pressure as President Bush did in 2008 to forge an agreement with the Iraqis.

Iraq’s internal politics are even more challenging given the requirement of parliamentary ratification. The Iraqi government and COR constitute unwieldy coalitions of parties and figure-heads constantly scheming to outdo one another. If obstructing agreement is seen as a means to dent Maliki’s power, it may appear for many as an opportunity too good to miss, even if this comes at the cost of Iraq’s national security.

Such obstacles should not encourage policy-makers from Obama’s and Maliki’s camps to simply cave in to domestic pressure. Each government must conduct a sombre re-assessment of needs, and if necessary, a new round of tough negotiations. National security and interests, not petty politics, should dictate agendas.

It helps to remember that in 2008, the pact was arguably concluded in even more difficult circumstances: when distrust of US intentions was higher, security much more precarious, and when Maliki had only fifteen or so members of his party in the COR versus the eighty-nine MPs his State of Law coalition boasts today. It helps too the fact that SOFA implementation has been far smoother than both sides had initially feared, confounding critics, and adding much-needed credibility to the process.

Nevertheless, a new SOFA will be very, very hard to achieve and a Plan B – the presence of a small, residual force for training and technical assistance – is the more likely option.

Syrian crackdown expands

Syrian troops expanded a crackdown on protesters as tanks rolled into the central city of Homs, and the town of Zabadani near the border of Lebanon, rounding up more than 500 protesters according to Al-Jazeera reports. The developments came a day after Syrian dissidents gathered in Turkey to discuss ways to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly brutal handling of the protests is drawing historical comparisons with the way his father, Hafez Al-Assad, dealt with an Islamist uprising in Homs in 1982, when between 10,000 and 20,000 men, women and children were killed.

Rumours of Mubarak’s deteriorating health as mass protest reignited in Tahrir square

In Egypt, there were conflicting reports about the medical condition of ousted President Hosni Mubarak as the Egyptian military council moved to lay the ground rules for a constitution that would arguably safeguard and expand its role in politics as reported by the New York Times. The military is said to be considering plans to adopt a ‘declaration of basic principles’ without recourse to a referendum and with provisions that would shield the defence budget from public scrutiny and protect the army’s vast economic interests. These moves come at a time when youth-led protests in Tahrir square have swelled again to the hundreds of thousands in the fear that the military and ex-regime’s grasp on power had not been satisfactorily relinquished.

South Sudan celebrates independence

On Saturday 9 July, South Sudan celebrated its independence, becoming Africa’s youngest and 54th nation, and the 193rd country to be recognized by the UN – the outcome of a 2005 peace deal that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war. The oil-rich state faces formidable challenges, including that of forming a professional, national army, overcoming shocking human development indices, and at the heart of it all, forging a truly consensual state and a common sense of citizenship and belonging.

Bahrain’s chief opposition quits ‘national talks’

Bahrain’s biggest opposition group, al-Wifaq, pulled out on Sunday from the country’s so-called ‘national dialogue,’ condemning the process as a ‘sham.’ ‘We have tried but without success to make it a serious dialogue,’ a spokesman for al-Wifaq told the French news agency, AFP. Only five members of al-Wifaq, which won more than 60 percent of votes in Bahrain’s national election last year, were invited to the talks which had around 300 participants. Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at Chatham House, said the government-sponsored talks were a ‘fairly cosmetic exercise.’

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