Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 June 2008
Issue No. 900
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A resounding 'No'

Several steamy issues suggest a delay in signing the Iraq-US security agreement, writes Saif Nasrawi

Negotiations over a proposed joint Iraq-US security agreement are certainly to hit a snag in the coming few weeks amid mounting opposition to its terms by Iraq's major political factions and religious establishment.

Both Shia and Sunni Iraqi political and religious leaders recently voiced serious concerns over the pivotal issues under negotiation, including the longevity of the agreement and whether it will allow for a permanent or temporary American military presence, capacity for US troops to carry out military operations and arrests of Iraqis without Baghdad's prior permission, legal immunity for American troops and security contractors, and the possibility of American military action outside the borders of Iraq.

The negotiations on the agreement "are still in their early stages and the Iraqi side has a vision and a draft that is different'' from the draft which was presented by Washington, Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh said.

Last Friday, thousands of Iraqis answered a call by Moqtada Al-Sadr to protest against the planned agreement to give a legal basis to US troops to stay in Iraq after 31 December, when their United Nations' mandate expires.

Similar reservations were echoed by Iraq's most revered Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani who insisted that the deal must not compromise Iraq's sovereignty. Ahmed Al-Safi, Al-Sistani's representative in the Shia holy city of Karbala told Friday's prayers that the agreement will "burden the Iraqi people with unnecessary problems and commitments. It will jeopardise its sovereignty and negatively affects its future generations."

Sunni political leaders were also critical of the agreement which both US and Iraqi officials began negotiating in March, six months after US President George Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki first announced the "Declaration of Principles" setting its broader outlines.

Iraq's Vice-President Tarek Al-Hashimi said on Sunday that there is a wide range Iraqi consensus to reject the draft which US officials suggested earlier would be concluded by the end of July. "Iraq will not accept any agreement that violates its sovereignty and threatens its vital interests," Al-Hashimi said during his visit to Amman. However, Al-Hashimi, a leading member in the Iraqi Accord Front, the main Sunni block in the Iraqi parliament, pointed out that "the current Iraqi predicament is way beyond Iraq's capability," a possible indicator that the Sunni position towards the agreement might be less hostile.

Salim Abdullah, the Iraqi Front Accord's spokesman, said on Tuesday that the agreement has both positive and negative dimensions, stressing that shallow political rhetoric is not a healthy precondition for either approving or rejecting it. "The terms of the agreement are still vague. I believe that it has both positive and negative sides especially the long presence of American troops in Iraq," Abdullah told the London-based newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. He added, "popular endorsement or refusal of the agreement must be based on a detailed awareness of its terms and implications. Rejection shouldn't depend on [media] headlines."

An Iraqi official familiar with the talks said that Al-Maliki's government has been recently under huge pressure not to sign an agreement which is demeaning. "It would be suicidal for Al-Maliki and his partners especially the Iraqi Supreme Council to sign a security pact without the consent of Al-Sistani and other Shia senior clerics," the official told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity. He added that the feeling among top Iraqi leaders is that it's wiser to wait for the next American president to have a more favourable agreement.

On Monday, a senior US official said that Washington still hopes to reach a new security pact with Iraq by the end of July. "The consultations on all these issues are quite intense. We certainly intend to work -- and the Iraqi side has not told us anything to the contrary -- towards the idea of moving forward by July on this," the official told reporters. He added that the agreement is based on "recognition of and respect for the fact of Iraqi sovereignty," clarifying that the agreement reached would be "transparent, submitted to the Iraqi parliament and would have no secret content".

Iraqi parliamentary sources said that US officials were using their leverage to pressure and persuade Iraqi lawmakers to approve the agreement once submitted by the government. "American diplomats in Baghdad were eagerly trying to convince Iraqi Shia MPs that the agreement would provide protection for the government against any internal threats by Al-Qaeda and similar extremists groups," an Iraqi official told Al-Ahram Weekly. These same officials employ a rather different strategy when talking to Sunni lawmakers by assuring them that an American military presence will encourage further Sunni integration into the political process, and balance the Shia-dominated army and security forces, thus preventing a potential Shia seizure of Baghdad and the mixed areas, a scenario many Sunnis fear once US troops are gone or severely reduced.

Press TV, the Iranian semi-official satellite channel, reported last week that Washington has offered bribes to Iraqi MPs to lure them into endorsing the security pact. It quoted sources in Iraq's parliament as saying that Washington has offered $3 million to any lawmaker who signs the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The Weekly could not verify this report independently. The most controversial issues on the table are the US insistence on keeping full control over Iraq's land, water and airspace, retaining legal immunity for American troops, and having the right to launch any military offensive deemed necessary to protect US soldiers without the government's prior authorisation.

A senior Iraqi official said that Iraqi negotiators are insisting that US military bases and posts must be temporary and that its presence be renewed annually, similar to the terms of the SOFA Washington has with Turkey. "Americans are also hesitant to provide a specific definition of terrorism, leaving it quite vague, without giving any tangible assurance that they are ready to protect Iraqi democracy regardless of the outcomes of elections," the official told the Weekly. He added that if negotiations reached a deadlock then Iraqis will appeal for an additional six- month or one-year renewal of the United Nations resolution governing the presence of US troops in Iraq.

Meanwhile, US Embassy spokesperson in Baghdad Mirembe Nantongo said on Tuesday that negotiating a long-term security pact with Iraq was at Al-Maliki's request. Nantongo told the London-based Al-Hayat that the "Iraqis were crystal clear from the very beginning that they don't want permanent military bases on their territories. We respect that and we will include it in the agreement."

On Sunday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told reporters that Iraq has sent teams to study military pacts Washington has with other nations. "Recently, we dispatched four tactical teams to visit Germany, Turkey, South Korea and Japan."

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