A Lumpy SOFA

Reports over the weekend that both the al-Maliki government and the Iranian government are less than enthused about the extension of the American military presence in Iraq via the proposed new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) are complicating the Iraq War future’s prospects. The SOFA is indeed turning lumpy.

What is going on here? The U.N. mandate under which the U.S. has operated its occupation in Iraq ends at the end of this year, as noted in an earlier posting. The only way the United States can legally remain in Iraq into 2009 is through a new UN mandate (which is not going to happen) or through Iraqi permission in the form of a SOFA wherein the two governments agree to an extension. The U.S. proposal calls for a long-term continued presence on a series of bases throughout Iraq. The pretensive reason is to protect the Iraqis (and Americans) from terrorists operating out of Iraq. The Iraqis, encouraged by the Iranians, increasingly view the SOFA as a ploy for the Americans to maintain effective control of Iraq more or less indefinitely. The Americans deny this; most Iraqis, who want the Americans to leave, do not believe us.

How is this all going to work out? Earlier in the year, the Bush administration apparently felt negotiation of the SOFA would be easy, assumed it would be signed and sealed well before the November election and would bind a new administration to honor commitments to stay. That hope not only no longer seems very likely, it now seems unlikely. Iraqi agreement to a new SOFA on American terms before November remains a possibility, but it is increasingly unlikely: the Iraqis and Iranians do not want it, and signing an agreement with a lame duck Bush administration that may be opposed by its successor is not a good deal for Iraqis who will have to deal with that new administration.

If the Bush deal is unlikely, then the next possibility is that nothing happens until the election, at which point a new arrangement is negotiated with the new administration’s blessing. If the incoming regime is headed by Obama, the new SOFA will likely be restrictive, calling for rapid removal of most U.S. forces and a small residual force to deal with AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) and to provide security for Americans remaining in the country. If the incoming adminstration is led by McCain, there will be prickly negotiations because McCain will essentially adopt the Bush position of a long, high manpower presence that could lead to the third outcome.

The third outcome is that the Iraqis simply refuse to sign any SOFA with the United States, a possibility hat seemed highly unlikely six months ago but not today. It is increasingly obvious that al-Maliki, or any other Iraqi leader who signs the SOFA the Bush administration wants, would be labeled a collaborator and besubject to retaliation after the Americans leave. If they reuse to allow the U.S. to stay, that would leave the United Statdes with two unpalatable options: obey international law, leave, and lose influence in Iraq; or brak the law, stay, and run the risk of international approbrium. The Bush administration would have no trouble with this dilemma, since they hold international law in disdain. But what about an Obama or a McCain administration? We will look at these possibilities in the future.   

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