Iraqi SOFA Update
With the 2008 U.S. presidential election now decided in favor of the candidate who opposes the Iraq War, progress has finally been made toward a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) allowing American troops to remain in Iraq after the UN mandate under which they have been officially deployed expires at the end of the year. The new agreement represents a compromise on both sides and one that should be acceptable to the new Obama administration (which presumably has signed off on it). The new SOFA has been approved by the Iraqi cabinet (an historic roadblock) and has only to be approved by the Iraqi parliament to go into effect. While that approval is not a given, the only organized group that opposes it are those allegiant to Muktada al-Sadr, who will accept nothing less than an immediate, full US withdrawal.
The agreement is a compromise in which both sides have given something to get something. It has two major aspects. The first is the continuing tenure and status of US forces in the country. Under the agreement, that tenure is bounded: all American forces must leave by the end of 2011. While that seems a long way off (and a longer period than Obama has said he wants), it represents a compromise on the part of the Bush administration, which wanted either no set withdrawal date or one that was flexible based on conditions on the ground. It gave in. The conditions of tenure are also limited: American forces must withdraw from Iraqi cities and suburbs by June 30, 2009, effectively limiting them to rural garrisons and patrols of rural areas–presumably where Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia remnants may still exist. It means they will be away from urban areas where the people do not want them, where their presence is a negative politically, and where they might get into trouble because of what they might do. This is also a small victory for the Iraqis and is also intended to reduce Iraqi opposition to letting the Americans stay until 2011.
This latter consideration affects the second aspect, which is the status of those forces. The largest source of contention in negotiations to this point has been whether American forces would be subject to American or Iraqi legal jurisdiction when they were accused of breaking Iraqi laws. The two sides were very far apart on this issue: the Iraqis insisting that off duty Americans in particular should be subject to the Iraqi legal system; Americans argued that Americans should be under U.S. law at all times. The Iraqis gave on this point, leaving even off duty troops under American jurisdiction. Presumably, the fact that Americans will have been banished to the countryside after June 30 made this concession more palatable, since GIs will not physically be where they can get in trouble.
Both sides can say they won in this. The Iraqis get a time certain American withdrawal date, if one further in the future than they would have preferred, and they get the Americans out of their hair in the urban, populated parts of the country, a political positive. The Americans, on the other hand, do not face the dilemma of what to do when January 1, 2009 arrives and their mandate has evaporated, and they maintain control over Americans in a legal sense.
Can the Obama administration live with this deal? The short answer is yes. The part of the agreement on which they have voiced an opinion is that of tenure: Obama has said repeatedly he expects to have all American troops out within 16 months of being sworn in. That would mean the last combat troops out around June 1, 2010, and there is nothing in the agreement to preclude that–the date is well in advance of when we have to leave, and nothing in it says we cannot leave sooner. His position does not preclude keeping non-combat Americans (contractors and those who provide security for them) in place until the end of 2011. Thus, the Bush administration hands the Obama team an agreement with which they can live and within which they can accelerate leaving if they decide.
The only sticking point is that pesky Iraqi parliament. Is a time-certain withdrawal date enough to gain their approval? We will see in the upcoming weeks.