Iraq: NCCI's Weekly Highlight - 20 Nov 2008


A guide to the U.S. security agreement with Iraq

What is the agreement?

The Status of Forces Agreement, commonly known as SOFA, is the legal documentation needed for American troops to remain in Iraq past Dec. 31 of this year, the date the United Nations mandate governing their presence expires. SOFA deals strictly with the security aspects of the U.S. presence. A separate agreement known as the Strategic Framework covers economic, cultural, technical and other issues. It is part of the package of legislation before the Iraqi parliament that includes SOFA.

How was the deal reached?

The process began more than a year ago when leaders of both countries declared their commitment to drafting the framework for a long-term relationship. Formal talks were launched in March. At the end of May, the talks reached what both sides have described as a dead end over contentious issues. Negotiators began fresh discussions that lasted through the summer and led to a SOFA draft in October. Iraq's Cabinet demanded about 100 changes to the draft, some small and some large. After more negotiations, a final deal was reached this month. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his Cabinet gave their approval over the weekend and passed it on to the parliament.

What were the sticking points?

The major ones involved timing for the withdrawal of American forces, and the question of whether American troops could be prosecuted by Iraqi courts for alleged crimes committed against Iraqis. Other areas of disagreement involved the future of Iraqi detainees held by U.S. forces in Iraq, and the question of whether Iraq has the right to inspect weapons and other packages arriving in the country for American troops.

How were the main issues resolved?

U.S. officials made a major concession on the timing question. They originally rejected a firm withdrawal date and suggested a vague "time horizon" for the U.S. pullout, based on conditions on the ground. They also spoke of extending the U.S. presence until 2015. The final plan calls for U.S. combat troops to pull out of Iraqi cities, towns and villages by next July, and for all U.S. troops to be gone from the country by Dec. 31, 2011. The dates are not "conditions-based." Iraq gave way on jurisdiction, dropping its demand for the right to try American troops for alleged crimes committed against Iraqis. Instead, a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee will examine individual cases involving Americans accused of committing such crimes while off base, and decide who has jurisdiction. The Americans agreed to relinquish control to Iraqi authorities of about 16,000 Iraqis held in U.S. custody in the country; and Iraq won the right to inspect incoming packages.

Who opposes the pact and why?

The leading critics are Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr; the main Sunni Arab political bloc in parliament; and Iran and Syria. Sadr has long demanded the ouster of American forces and says they should leave when the U.N. mandate expires next month. Iran and Syria, which Washington accuses of fomenting violence inside Iraq, also want U.S. forces to leave as soon as possible. Sunni leaders have said the pact is too important a matter not to be voted on in a public referendum.

Could opponents derail the plan?

It's doubtful they could stop it in parliament, because neither the Sadr bloc nor the Sunnis have enough seats to vote it down. However, the Sadrists made it clear Monday that they would attempt to stall debate by demanding legislation that could require a two-thirds majority vote, rather than a simple majority, to approve the pact. The Sunnis could derail the pact if Vice President Tariq Hashimi, a Sunni who sits on the nation's three-member Presidency Council, opted to use his veto powers to prevent it from being signed into law once passed by parliament. That would force U.S. and Iraqi officials to scramble for an alternative plan.

Does the pact affect non-U.S. troops in the country?

No. There are only a few thousand non-American troops here now, and most plan to leave by the end of the year. The biggest non-U.S. force is Britain's, which numbers about 4,000 and is negotiating its own pact with Iraq.

What happens now?

Parliament had its first "reading" of the pact Monday, when it received the package but did not discuss it. Debate begins this week, with a vote anticipated by Nov. 25.

What if it fails?

If it fails, U.S. forces will have to halt operations in Iraq at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, unless the U.N. mandate could be extended beforehand.

Tina Susman
'A guide to the U.S. security agreement with Iraq'
Los Angeles Times