If you listen to supporters of the war, you’d think the US had won it. They point to decreased violence, al Maliki’s agreements with various militias, and claim that Iraq is calm, with the US near achieving its goals. As I noted a couple weeks ago in Iraqi myths and realities, this is far from the truth (see also Iranian endgame in Iraq). For this story line to live on they need two things: a) violence must remain low the rest of the year, and b) they need to conclude a status of forces agreement to assure Iraqi approval of continued US presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future. Having both may be all but impossible.
Although most Americans don’t know what a SOFA or a Status of Forces Agreement is, they are often very controversial in other countries. American military personnel are given special status, and there have been many headline cases abroad about Americans accused of rape and molestation, but who are whisked away so that they do not have to face charges in the country where the crime took place. This has created ill will towards the US in places like Japan and Korea, and contributes to an especially high level of anti-Americanism in South Korea.
In Iraq, the US wants to establish 50 military bases, have immunity from Iraqi law for both US military personnel and private security forces, control Iraqi air space, and have the the right “to conduct autonomous military operations” within Iraq. In short, Iraq would surrender some basic aspects of its sovereignty for this agreement. The US would be above the law, could intervene in Iraqi matters with military force any time it wanted to, and have bases peppered across the country.
Iraqi citizens and clerics are none too happy about it, and have threatened an uprising should the Maliki government agree. Yet this is important to President Bush. When Maliki balked at some of the provisions, President Bush called him personally to tell him that the US would not violate Iraqi sovereignty, but wanted certain protections in the accord. The Iranians, however, warn that US presence in Iraq is the cause of instability and unrest, and hints that it will help undercut Iraqi stability if the US signals a permanent presence. Meanwhile, in response to leaked details of the SOFA, Moqtada al-Sadr has called for Friday protests, and Iraqi law makers have signed a letter demanding a time table for US departure.
So what’s going on? The Bush Administration recognizes that the stability in Iraq now is an illusion of success. They realize Iran has penetrated Iraq’s government, military and militias. They know that if the US leaves it will leave an Iraq very much influenced by and even allied with Iran. This not only hurts American efforts to marginalize Iran, but also threatens renewed sectarian violence in Iraq, as Sunnis fear Iranian influence. Also, Iraq has more proven oil reserves than any state in the region except Saudi Arabia, and the US does not want Iran, who already trades oil in Euros and has threatened to use oil as a weapon, to have an ally in Iraq.
So the only way to really win in Iraq is to keep a long term presence, and use military force if Iran seems to be expanding its influence. The Iranians, for their part, have been willing to rachet down the violence to allow the US a face saving exit — violence down, declare victory and leave. But the SOFA threatens that, and risks the US trying to establish Iraq as a permanent base. With Senator McCain talking about 100 years in Iraq and making comparisons to Japan and South Korea, this is met in Iran with alarm — and with determination to use all their leverage to prevent it from happening.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki runs a government known to be corrupt and fragmented. Lacking control over the Kurdish and Sunni areas of the state, and with only partial control over Shi’ite regions, Maliki sees the US as a potential insurance policy for Iraqi government power. With the US gone, parties more friendly to Iran may get more of the goodies of an oil rich corrupt economy. The US is helping assure that those in the current government benefit — hence support by many government insiders for a deal with the US.
Watch this fight closely — it’s as close and as exciting as was the Clinton-Obama battle. The US will pressure Maliki to sign without major revisions (though certainly some symbolic nods to Iraqi sovereignty). Iran will respond by putting pressure on the Iraqi government, and Iranian backed militias will work with Iraqi nationalists to threaten the government with unrest. They will demand a timetable for withdrawal, not approval of 50 bases. The Bush administration knows the time is tight — if the negotiations drag on into August, the election campaign will overwhelm the issue, and those opposed to the US will be able to threaten to increase unrest at a time that would undercut the McCain campaign by making Iraq a major issue. Bush is hoping McCain takes over and continues his policy, and knows that this is only likely if the violence in Iraq remains low.
So watch this issue! If the US gets a favorable SOFA and there is little or no effective opposition, this means less violence and a greater chance that the next President might choose not to leave Iraq quickly. On the other extreme, massive violence in Iraq could develop in protest to SOFA giving the US most of what the Bush Administration wants. This could also increase the risk things could escalate into a conflict with Iran. If no SOFA is signed and instead a short term agreement to allow troops there until a comprehensive agreement is reached, that’s a tacit victory for Iran, and will increase the pressure on the US to withdrawal. Finally, if an extremely watered down SOFA is signed which satisfies the Iraqi opposition, that likely is also a benefit for Iran, and would likely also signal a hastened US departure.
So even though the media is only obliquely reporting this issue, and it seems buried between stories of tornadoes and the Obama-McCain match up, it’s shaping up to be a very telling indicator on the future of US military action in Iraq. And a successful SOFA might help John McCain in the general election, while a breakdown of these negotiations may make it all but impossible for him to win. The Iraq SOFA fight is a big deal.