The text of the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement
(SOFA) signed by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar
Zebari Monday closes the door to a further U.S. military presence beyond 2011
even more tightly than the previous draft and locks in a swift end to Iraqi
dependence on the U.S. military that appears to be irreversible.
The agreement ends the George W. Bush administration's aspiration for a long-term
military presence, aimed both at projecting power in the region from bases
in Iraq and at maintaining that Iraqi military dependence on U.S. training,
advice, and support.
The agreement represents an acute embarrassment for the Bush administration,
which had taken the position through most of the summer that the agreement
would be consistent with its demand for a "conditions-based" withdrawal.
Instead of adjusting its rhetoric to reflect the actual agreement, White House
press secretary Dana Perino took the line Monday that the agreement contains
only "aspirational dates" for complete withdrawal and for withdrawal
from Iraqi cities and towns.
That was a Bush administration demand that was still in the negotiating text
as of Aug. 13, in the form of language referring to "time targets"
rather than a firm deadline for withdrawal and which even allowed the two sides
to "review" the "conditions that might lead to one side asking
the other to extend or reduce the time periods" for withdrawal from cities
and complete withdrawal.
But the Bush administration soon dropped those demands, perhaps in the recognition
that a Barack Obama administration would withdraw even more rapidly than the
date set in the agreement.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also supported
that White House line by suggesting that the U.S. military would continue to
talk with its Iraqi counterparts, and that it is "theoretically"
possible for the deadline for complete withdrawal to be extended.
But Mullen's expression of continued hope for reversing the verdict of the
negotiations dramatized the degree to which the U.S. military leadership has
remained out of touch with the Iraqi political reality of nationalism and resistance
to dependence on U.S. military forces.
The previous draft, dated Oct. 13, did contain language that offered a formal
way to extend the 2011 deadline for complete U.S. withdrawal beyond that date.
That language allowed Iraq to "ask the U.S. government to keep specific
forces for the purposes of training and support of the Iraqi security forces"
but would have required that "a special agreement will be negotiated and
signed by both sides in accordance with the laws and constitutional requirements
in both countries" or a revision of the treaty itself. In either case,
the Iraqi parliament would have been required to approve such a request.
But the Bush administration agreed in the final pact to delete both those
provisions, on the demand of the Iraqi government. That demand, in turn, was
the result of intense pressure from Iraqi Shia parties that are close to Iran
and popular displeasure with the military occupation.
The pro-Iranian parties had threatened to oppose the agreement in the Iraqi
parliament if those and other offending sections were not changed.
It has been known since last summer that the agreement would require that
U.S. troops move out of populated areas by the end of June 2009. But a provision
introduced into the text in October strongly hints that the Iraqi government
will seek to speed up that process even further by establishing a timetable
for full turnover of responsibility to Iraqi forces before that date.
Article 25 says U.S. combat forces must "withdraw from all cities, towns,
and villages as soon as the Iraqi forces take over the full security responsibility
in them." The June 30, 2009, date is thus not the earliest that it could
happen but the latest date for the completion of the process.
A further indication of the intention of the Iraqi government to speed up
the process of reducing dependence on the U.S. military is new language in
the final draft suggesting that Iraq wants a complete timetable for the phased
withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. Article 25 also requires the creation
of "mechanisms and arrangements to reduce the U.S. forces levels within
the specified time period."
U.S. troops are forbidden by the agreement from carrying out operations without
prior Iraqi approval and from detaining any Iraqi without an Iraqi court order.
These tight new constraints on U.S. forces in Iraq represent a stark contrast
to the virtual complete independence with which U.S. forces operated there
The SOFA represents a formal recognition of a remarkable shift in power relations
between an occupying power and the state created under its protection. What
had appeared to be a safely dependent client regime was instead a regime that
was waiting for the right moment to assert real control over the military presence
of that power.
Not only the Bush administration and the U.S. military but most of the U.S.
national security elite assumed throughout most of the negotiations on the
SOFA that Iraq would agree to the advisory, training, and support missions
that the U.S. military wanted to carry out in Iraq. U.S. officials and supporters
of such missions talked about 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. training and support troops
remaining in the country indefinitely.
The supporters of such a role believed that Iraqi security forces could not
fight a counterinsurgency war without the U.S. military directly involved in
the effort. But that assumption turned out to be an expression of parochial
institutional and political interests rather than a reflection of the views
of the Iraqi leadership.
The willingness of the Iraqi government to get along without the help that
most of Washington believed was essential to the regime's survival appears
to reflect profound differences in interests between the two governments over
how to handle both Sunni and Shia dissidents. The Shia-dominated regime feels
more confident of its ability to deal with the potential for Sunni military
resistance without an overweening U.S. military presence than with it.
It also has greater confidence in its ability to handle the problem of Sadrist
nationalist resistance by assuming a nationalist position on the U.S. military
than by relying on its help. From the Iraqi government perspective, a series
of agreements with Sadr brokered by Iran provided more security in 2008 than
U.S. military operations against the Sadrists had provided up to that time.
In a broader geopolitical sense, the SOFA reveals the political reality that
U.S. military power in Iraq could not be translated into longer-term influence
over the country. Once a Shia regime with close political and religious ties
to Iran came to power, it was inevitable that reliance on U.S. military power
would be only a temporary policy, to be phased out when conditions permitted
The SOFA negotiations provided the occasion for that phase-out to be formalized.
(Inter Press Service)