David Morrison / Irish Political Review – 2008-07-27 10:12:12
DUBLIN ( July 20, 2008) — On 7 July 2008, Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, stated that the status-of-forces agreement being negotiated with the US must contain a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. According to Reuters, he told Arab ambassadors on a visit to Abu Dhabi:
“Today, we are looking at the necessity of terminating the foreign presence on Iraqi lands and restoring full sovereignty.
“One of the two basic topics is either to have a memorandum of understanding for the departure of forces or a memorandum of understanding to set a timetable for the presence of the forces, so that we know (their presence) will end in a specific time.” 
Iraqi National Security Adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, appeared to go further the following day, telling reporters in Najaf after meeting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani:
“We can’t have a memorandum of understanding with foreign forces unless it has dates and clear horizons determining the departure of foreign forces. We’re unambiguously talking about their departure.” 
The White House was less than enthusiastic about these demands for a withdrawal date. The response from the White House Press Secretary, Dana Perino, on 9 July 2008 was:
“We have always been opposed, and remain so, to an arbitrary withdrawal date. We believe that, as we’ve said before, that any actual troop withdrawal schedule needs to be based on conditions on the ground. 
Remember, she speaks for a president, who told a press conference on 24 May 2007:
“We are there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. This is a sovereign nation. Twelve million people went to the polls to approve a constitution. It’s their government’s choice. If they were to say, leave, we would leave.” 
But, apparently, not yet.
End of UN Mandate
The background to all this is that the UN Security Council mandate, under which US and other foreign forces operate in Iraq, expires on 31 December 2008. This mandate was first given in resolution 1511 , passed on 16 October 2003, seven months after the US/UK invasion of Iraq.
This resolution established a multinational force under US command, MNF-I (Multi-National Force – Iraq), and authorised it “to take all necessary measures”, that is, use force, to put down resistance to the US/UK occupation of Iraq. The Council passed the resolution unanimously – France, Russia and China voted for the resolution, even though seven months earlier they refused to authorise the US/UK invasion.
This initial MNF-I mandate in resolution 1511 was for a year. It has subsequently been renewed, ostensibly at the request of the Iraqi Government, most recently by resolution 1790  passed on 18 December 2007, which extended the mandate to 31 December 2008.
At the time of this renewal, Prime Minister Maliki indicated that the Iraqi Government would not seek a further renewal. Instead, it was planned that, from 1 January 2009 onwards, US and other foreign forces would operate under a bilateral US-Iraq status-of-forces agreement.
This was envisaged as one part, albeit the most important part, of a wider agreement between the US and Iraq, foreshadowed in the grandiose Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship Between the Republic of Iraq and the United States of America , to which President Bush and Prime Minister Maliki put their names on 26 November 2007. The whole package was supposed to be agreed by 31 July 2008 for submission to the Iraqi parliament for approval in August.
At the outset, the US expected that, under the status-of-forces agreement, US and other foreign forces would continue to operate in Iraq as they do now — conducting military operations and detaining Iraqi civilians when and where they wanted, without asking for Iraqi permission; having exclusive control over Iraqi airspace; and, crucially, having blanket immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law, no matter what crimes they committed. Furthermore, the US expected that private contractors working for the US authorities in Iraq would also continue to have immunity from prosecution.
In addition, the US expected the agreement to be of unlimited duration. A White House Fact Sheet that accompanied the Declaration of Principles set it in the following context:
“The declaration sets the U.S. and Iraq on a path toward negotiating agreements that are common throughout the world. The U.S. has security relationships with over 100 countries around the world, including recent agreements with nations such as Afghanistan and former Soviet bloc countries.” 
General Douglas Lute, the Assistant to the President for Iraq and Afghanistan, spoke to the press about the Declaration of Principles on 26 November 2007. When asked if there was a precedent for the agreement, he replied:
“Well, in fact, we do have a long-term bilateral with [South] Korea. There are about a hundred countries around the world with which we have bilateral defense or security cooperation agreements. You should think about the one that’s emerging here with Iraq as one in that same sort of setting.” 
The US agreement with South Korea has been in existence for over 50 years. There is no doubt that this is the sort of timescale Washington was thinking about for US forces remaining in Iraq, albeit in decreasing numbers and with decreasing freedom to operate unilaterally as time progressed. At that time, John McCain, now the Republican presidential nominee, was talking about US troops being in Iraq for 100 years.
’Plan A’ Abandoned
Matters haven’t worked out as the US expected: the Iraqi Government has refused to sign an agreement of indefinite duration that gives the US the freedom of action they currently enjoy in Iraq. As a result, the Bush administration has had to abandon its plan to have a long-term status-of-forces agreement in place by the end of 2008.
As Karen DeYoung reported in the Washington Post on 13 July 2008, in an article entitled US, Iraq Scale Down Negotiations Over Forces, Long-Term Agreement Will Fall to Next President:
“US and Iraqi negotiators have abandoned efforts to conclude a comprehensive agreement governing the long-term status of US troops in Iraq before the end of the Bush presidency, according to senior US officials, effectively leaving talks over an extended US military presence there to the next administration.
“In place of the formal status-of-forces agreement negotiators had hoped to complete by July 31, the two governments are now working on a ‘bridge’ document, more limited in both time and scope, that would allow basic US military operations to continue beyond the expiration of a UN mandate at the end of the year.
“The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord – blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept US terms and the complexity of the task – deals a blow to the Bush administration’s plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years.
“Although President Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, ‘we are talking about dates’, acknowledged one US official close to the negotiations. Iraqi political leaders ‘are all telling us the same thing. They need something like this in there. . . . Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever’.
“Unlike the status-of-forces agreements between the United States and countries such as South Korea and Japan, where large numbers of US troops have been based for decades, the document now under discussion with Iraq is likely to cover only 2009.” 
To make this limited agreement palatable to the Iraqi Government, according to Karen DeYoung, it is going to have to include target dates “for US troop withdrawal from Baghdad and other cities and installations such as the former Saddam Hussein palace that now houses the US Embassy” and put limits on the current freedom of action of US forces and private contractors.
In particular, the US has given in to Iraqi demands that private contractors can no longer have blanket immunity from Iraqi law. Recent incidents in which they have been responsible for the deaths of Iraqi civilians have made it impossible for the Iraqi Government to concede this. In addition, the agreement will have to include arrangements that at least give the appearance of joint US-Iraq control of US combat and detention operations.
Maliki Takes a Stand
In the past, Prime Minister al-Maliki has rarely adopted a political stance counter to US wishes. His present stance is a first in that regard. It cannot be certain that he will maintain it, but popular opposition to an open ended status-of-forces agreement may compel him to do so.
Provincial elections are due to be held before the end of this year and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2009. Moqtada al-Sadr, who leads the political opposition to Maliki amongst Shiites, is unequivocally opposed to an agreement without a date for the end of US occupation, to which he has been opposed from the outset. So, Maliki may be forced to maintain his present stance in order to survive politically.
Article 58 of the Iraqi constitution specifies that “the ratification of international treaties and agreements” requires “a two-thirds majority of the members” of parliament . Maliki has promised that any status-of-forces agreement will be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for review and approval, and has accepted that a two-thirds majority is necessary for parliamentary approval.
The original plan was to have an agreement ready for submission to the Iraqi parliament at the end of July and approved prior to the parliamentary recess for Ramadan in September. That plan has had to be shelved and the plan now is to negotiate a temporary agreement instead.
Whether this will count as an international treaty or agreement requiring the support of two-thirds of the Iraqi parliament is not clear. Karen DeYoung quotes “US officials” as saying that “Maliki also hopes that a temporary protocol would circumvent the full parliamentary review and two-thirds vote he has promised for a status-of-forces agreement” .
There could be interesting times towards the end of 2008 if, as the UN mandate runs out, the Iraqi parliament refuses to ratify a bilateral agreement for US and other foreign forces to operate under in 2009.
The US would surely have preferred the UN mandate to be renewed annually as it has been up to now. Under it, the US was unquestionably in charge, paying only occasional lip service to the existence of a “sovereign” Iraqi government. The process of negotiating an alternative US-Iraq agreement to replace it seems to have brought into existence an Iraqi government which under popular pressure isn’t behaving as a lickspittle of Washington.
This is in no small measure due to the US’s arrogant assumption that it would continue to be in charge, as it has been under the UN mandate, and that US forces would remain in Iraq for the next 50 or 100 years. That definitely backfired, so much so that US freedom of action is going to be reduced in any agreement that is signed, even if it’s only for 2009.
Obama stands firm
In the US presidential race, Barack Obama has stuck remarkably firmly to his position that the invasion of Iraq was an unnecessary war for the US – that Iraq was no threat to the US, that it had nothing to do with 9/11 and that there was no al-Qaeda there before the invasion – and, if elected, he will end it and withdraw combat troops by the summer of 2010.
Here is what his website says about the withdrawal of troops:
“Barack Obama believes we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. Immediately upon taking office, Obama will give his Secretary of Defense and military commanders a new mission in Iraq: ending the war. The removal of our troops will be responsible and phased, directed by military commanders on the ground and done in consultation with the Iraqi government. Military experts believe we can safely redeploy combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of 1 to 2 brigades a month that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 – more than 7 years after the war began.
“Under the Obama plan, a residual force will remain in Iraq and in the region to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel. He will not build permanent bases in Iraq, but will continue efforts to train and support the Iraqi security forces as long as Iraqi leaders move toward political reconciliation and away from sectarianism.” 
Obviously, the last paragraph gives him plenty of wriggle room (and it should be said that in a Democratic presidential debate on 26 September 2007, he refused to pledge that there will be no US troops in Iraq at the end of his first term ).
By contrast, his Republican opponent, John McCain, has been the ultimate Bush loyalist on Iraq, putting himself out on a limb at the beginning of 2007 by being one of the few senior Republicans who wholeheartedly supported the “surge” – the 30,000 increase in US ground troops. The success of the “surge” in reducing US and Iraqi casualties was, he said, evidence of his good judgment and fitness to be commander-in-chief. (In reality, the fall in the death rate in Iraq had little to do with the “surge”).
McCain has condemned Obama’s timetable for the troop withdrawal as “surrender” and, famously, told a campaign meeting in February 2008 that he would be happy with US troops remaining in Iraq for the next 100 years, as long as they weren’t taking casualties. Hadn’t the US still got troops in Germany and Japan, and in South Korea? History may conclude that, by remarks such as these, he is chiefly responsible for stirring up opposition in Iraq to an open ended status-of-forces agreement with the US. Recently, he has modified his position, saying that he hopes to bring US combat troops home by 2013.
News for McCain
There have been a number of sharp exchanges between the candidates about Iraq. When on 26 February 2008 Obama said that he would reserve the right to return to Iraq after withdrawing troops “if al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq” , McCain responded by saying that he had some news for Senator Obama:
“Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. Al-Qaeda is called ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’. My friends, if we left, they wouldn’t be establishing a base. . . . they would be taking a country. I will not allow that to happen, my friends. I will not surrender.”
Obama’s response was equally sharp:
“I have some news for John McCain, and that is that there was no such thing as al-Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq.”
In March, on a visit to the Middle East, McCain did his reputation for good judgment about America’s “enemies” no good when he asserted that it was “common knowledge” that Iran was training al-Qaeda operatives, a confusion he repeated more than once . His Senate colleague, Joe Lieberman, had to whisper in his ear live on TV in order to put him right.
McCain on Back Foot
One might have thought that the dramatic decrease in US casualties in recent months would have given momentum to McCain on Iraq as the loyal supporter of the administration’s tactics, and would have put Obama on the back foot about Iraq. But, on the contrary, McCain seems to be on the back foot. The “success” claimed by the administration, particularly, its claim that al-Qaeda is on its last legs in Iraq, reinforces Obama’s case that troops can be withdrawn. And the US military’s demand for more troops for Afghanistan, troops which it is said cannot be supplied while the present commitment to Iraq continues, adds to his case.
Obama has now got a consistent story on Iraq that will sell to the US electorate. The invasion of Iraq, where there was no al-Qaeda, was a strategic blunder, which has wasted the lives of more than 4,000 Americans and nearly $1 trillion and diverted resources away from Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda existed and still exists. “Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been” is his message.
George Bush was responsible for this strategic blunder and John McCain was one of the most vociferous advocates for it. Obama promises to fix it by withdrawing troops from Iraq and sending some of them to Afghanistan, where there is supposedly a real threat to the US – which there isn’t, but it’s a post-9/11 story that the US electorate will buy.
Obama Takes Advantage
The recent calls from the Iraqi leadership for a troop withdrawal date have also boosted Obama’s position – and he has been quick to take advantage of them. In an op-ed in the New York Times on 14 July 2008, he wrote:
“The call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States.” 
“The differences on Iraq in this campaign are deep. Unlike Senator John McCain, I opposed the war in Iraq before it began, and would end it as president. I believed it was a grave mistake to allow ourselves to be distracted from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Since then, more than 4,000 Americans have died and we have spent nearly $1 trillion. Our military is overstretched. Nearly every threat we face – from Afghanistan to Al Qaeda to Iran – has grown. …
“Only by redeploying our troops can we press the Iraqis to reach comprehensive political accommodation and achieve a successful transition to Iraqis’ taking responsibility for the security and stability of their country. Instead of seizing the moment and encouraging Iraqis to step up, the Bush administration and Senator McCain are refusing to embrace this transition — despite their previous commitments to respect the will of Iraq’s sovereign government. They call any timetable for the removal of American troops ‘surrender’, even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government.
“But this is not a strategy for success – it is a strategy for staying that runs contrary to the will of the Iraqi people, the American people and the security interests of the United States. That is why, on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war.”
It’s surprising how blunt Obama is about the invasion of Iraq, saying as he does that it was a war of choice for the US against a state that wasn’t a threat to the US and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. He never mentions the “success” of overthrowing of Saddam Hussein, as other do.
In other words, according to Obama, Bush and Blair engaged in “the planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression”, which was the accusation against the Nazi leadership at Nuremberg.