Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 November 2008
Issue No. 923
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

No post-withdrawal guarantees

Iraq's security pact with Washington hardly signals an end to the country's woes, writes Salah Hemeid

After months of tireless negotiations, tough bargaining and countless drafts, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker signed a security pact on Monday that will allow thousands of US troops to stay in the country until the end of 2011. The signing took place a day after the Iraqi cabinet approved the deal.

The agreement has been hailed by both Baghdad's government and the Bush administration as a "historic" deal, necessary to help sustain stability and security until Iraq is able to build its own army and police force. Officially renamed the Agreement on the Withdrawal of US Troops instead of the original Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), it determines the role of US military forces after their UN mandate expires on 31 December.

Under the plan, which the Iraqi parliament is expected to endorse, US forces in Iraq will be placed under the authority of the Iraqi government and will be banned from searching and raiding homes without Iraqi approval. It also allows the Iraqi government to search shipments of weapons and other packages entering Iraq for US recipients, and contains a vaguely worded passage allowing for the prosecution of American troops for serious crimes.

Announcing the government's approval, spokesman Ali Al-Dabagh described the deal as "the best possible available option". The Bush administration welcomed the Iraqi cabinet's vote, saying it was "an important and positive step" towards stability and security. The new pact provides the cornerstone of US- Iraqi relations for "economy, culture, science, technology, health and trade" said Crocker.

While Iraq's parliament is expected to endorse the deal, it could still be contested by opponents in the constitutional court. It is not clear if the endorsement requires a simple, or a two thirds, majority of the 275-member legislative -- the latter a constitutional requirement for key legislation. It is also unclear if the assembly will debate the agreement article by article or vote, as the government wants, on the whole package, or what will constitute a quorum should its detractors try to prevent its passage by abstaining or walking out.

On its initial reading on Monday the agreement faced its first hurdle when supporters of Shia firebrand Muqtada Al-Sadr demanded that parliament debate a draft law they have proposed on international treaties and conventions which aims to make it hard for lawmakers to endorse the deal. It remains to be seen if the 30 Sadrist deputies can garner further support for their bill before the vote on the Agreement on the Withdrawal of US Troops, scheduled for 24 November.

The Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front, which has 44 seats in parliament, has called for a referendum on the agreement rather than parliamentary endorsement. At a press conference its leader, Adnan Al-Dulaimi, objected to handing over Sunni prisoners, now in American detention centres, to the Shia-led government. Sunni Minister of Women Nawal Al-Samaraei was the only cabinet member who voted against the pact during Sunday's cabinet session and it remains possible that Sunni Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashimi will use his position on the presidency council to veto it.

Even if the pact is approved it could easily serve to further divide Iraq's sectarian and ethnic groups, now vying to consolidate their power bases ahead of next year's local and parliamentary elections. On Friday Al-Sadr threatened to revive armed elements of his Mahdi army militia and return to war with US forces if the agreement is passed. Al-Sadr, who feels the sooner American soldiers are out of Iraq the better chance his movement will have to revive its activities, vowed that he will send his personal brigades into battle against the pact.

The dilemma of the Sunni Arabs is even more complex. While it is embarrassing to publicly urge the Americans to stay longer so that they can negotiate a better deal with the Shias and Kurds, the withdrawal of American soldiers, who sometimes worked as their prolocutor, will leave them isolated. It is not surprising, therefore, that Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, leader of the Sahwa -- Awakening Group -- in Anbar has called for a strategic alliance with the US instead of the security pact the government has concluded with Washington.

Kurds, already at loggerheads with Al-Maliki over who should be in control, are worried that the American withdrawal will further empower the incumbent prime minister. Mahmoud Othman, a key Kurdish lawmaker, noting that the pact does not make any pledge to "protect Kurdistan and the future of Kurds", predicted increased tensions with Al-Maliki after the withdrawal. He also voiced concerns that Al-Maliki might sign agreements with other countries, including Iran, which could come at the expense of Kurds.

Meanwhile, US President-elect Barack Obama reiterated on Monday that when he takes office on 20 January his administration "will start executing a plan that draws down our troops" in Iraq. The pact allows for the next American president to change the agreement as he sees fit. Iran and Syria, both of which see continued US presence in Iraq as a threat to their security, have expressed strong opposition to the agreement. They are sure to try to fill the political and security vacuum created after the American departure.

Is this a sustainable solution for Iraq's woes? With US soldiers out Iraq may disappear from the front pages of American newspapers, though this will not mean that calm and peace prevail in the beleaguered nation. With or without American troops, that day remains a long way off. (see p.9)

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