Sovereignty vs power
The proposed Iraqi-US agreement allowing American forces to remain in the country after their UN mandate expires is already exacerbating Iraq's problems, writes Salah Hemeid
Iraqi leaders, who must decide soon on a controversial strategic pact to extend the American military presence in Iraq, have few doubts about what their beleaguered country needs. At a meeting on Sunday to review the latest version of the agreement senior Iraqi leaders made it clear that what the Americans are offering is more than they can swallow.
"The council unanimously agrees that this agreement must take into consideration Iraq's sovereignty, in all aspects, and that it should not include any provisions that infringe on the interests of the Iraqi people," said the Iraqi leaders in a statement following a meeting of the Political Council, an assembly of senior representatives of Iraq's various factions.
Two days before the meeting Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki said talks with the United States on a long-term security pact had reached a dead-end over objections relating to Iraq's sovereignty. His statement in Amman, Jordan, was the strongest yet in a debate which echoed the concerns of many Iraqis that the US proposals give Washington too much political and military leverage.
For months Iraqi negotiators have been meeting with their American counterparts under a shroud of secrecy to hammer out the terms of an agreement that will provide a legal basis for the presence of US forces in Iraq after their UN mandate expires at the end of this year. No official documents have been made public but numerous versions of the pact, leaked to the media, suggest that the Americans are insisting on conditions that many Iraqis see as unacceptable.
Early versions have sought to guarantee immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law not only for US soldiers but for mercenaries working for security firms in Iraq while granting US forces the authority to arrest anyone in Iraq without having to turn the detainees over to Iraqi courts. They also demanded open-ended Iraqi approval for up to 58 American military bases on Iraqi soil. The US negotiators had also originally insisted on control of Iraqi airspace below 29,000 feet and carte blanche for American forces to launch military operations from Iraq against any target without consulting the Iraqi authorities.
The agreement, in its original terms, was seen by many Iraqis as a blank cheque for the US forces to operate in Iraq as long as they wanted while doing anything they liked, regardless of any concept of Iraqi sovereignty, independence and national interests. The agreement would not only have cemented American military, political and economic domination of Iraq, it would have turned it into a colony in all but name.
Iraqis got wind of the agreement via leaks after Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced last month that it would be finalised by the end of July, prompting key figures to begin voicing their concerns about the humiliating terms and pressing Al-Maliki's government to renegotiate. Through his spokesmen, Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani urged negotiators to protect Iraq's national interest, economy and sovereignty. Followers of the powerful cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr also rallied against the agreement, accusing the United States of trying to cement its foothold in the country.
The outrage has fuelled already high tensions amid clashes between US-Iraqi forces and Shia militia fighters. Al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, issued a statement last Friday saying his Mahdi militia would continue to resist US-led forces in Iraq but fighting will be limited to a select group.
Iran has led a vocal campaign against the deal, with former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani warning that the deal is unacceptable not just to Iraqis but across the region. "The agreement," he said, "if approved will enslave the Iraqis before the Americans" and lead to permanent occupation of their country.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs have their own objections to an agreement that is widely seen to infringe on the country's sovereignty despite speculation that some Sunnis might consider a prolonged American presence as offering protection against Iranian ambitions in Iraq. Although Sunni politicians and lawmakers support the fledging government's position, imams and activists have been outspoken in rejecting the pact. Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbours are also fearful that any long-term presence is a recipe for further trouble in the war-torn nation which will impact on their own security.
In the face of growing opposition American and Iraqi negotiators have been revising the terms to narrow their differences. Iraqi leaders say they are forming two working groups to renegotiate the agreement under direct supervision of Al-Maliki. President Bush himself has said the security pact with Iraq will include no plans for permanent US bases there.
Such pledges could be no more than ruses aimed at concealing the terms of the negotiations from Iraqis who would object to them if they were made public. On Monday Zebari told CNN he still expects Iraq to reach an agreement with Washington by the end of July, raising fears that the government is camouflaging its intentions with noisy promises.
Both the ruling alliance in Baghdad and the Bush administration are desperate to finalise the agreement. While the Iraqi government realises that it cannot maintain its recent security gains, or even stay in power, without the American help, Bush wants to gain a legal basis for the US occupation and cite that as a victory for his war policy. Al-Maliki could claim that he regained sovereignty for Iraq and Bush could use this agreement as evidence that he has reshaped a strategically vital area of the world, endowing Iraqis with freedom, democracy, and stability.
Even if the two sides reach a compromise Iraqis will still view the pact as making humiliating concessions. At this juncture in Iraq's turbulent history it is hard not to recall the events of 1948, when Iraqis revolted against attempts to renew the Anglo- Iraqi Treaty of 1930. The British- backed government of Nuri Al-Said was forced to disavow the treaty after it was rejected out of hand by crowds in the streets of Baghdad. Many Iraqis now wonder if history is about to repeat itself while another Nuri is in power in Baghdad.