In the next few months, Iraqi leaders may have to make tough historic decisions that will not only affect the future of Iraq for many years to come but may also determine their own political future as well. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki have already agreed on a statement of principles for the negotiations, setting a July 31, 2008 target date to formalize US-Iraq economic, political and security relations. The two negotiating teams have been talking since March.
These negotiations present a huge challenge for the Iraqis. There are important differences between the positions of the two negotiating parties, particularly on security-related issues: the mission of the American troops, the authority to conduct military operations in Iraq, the detention of Iraqi citizens or residents, immunity for civilian security contractors and number of bases.
These differences are further complicated by the political environment in the United States, Iraq and the region. First, they are being negotiated in the shadow of the November 2008 US presidential election and despite high American public opposition to the war. Second, the agreements shape up as a major political battleground between America and Iran. And third, these agreements can exacerbate already existing divisions within Iraqi society.
Iraqis and Americans agree on the mission of the American forces in the long term, i.e., training, equipping and providing expertise to Iraqi forces.
However, the United Nations mandate under which the US-led forces operate in Iraq will end by December 2008. Iraq s government realizes that its security forces are not yet able to stand alone against foreign and terrorist threats. Hence Iraqis want a commitment from the United States to assist them to defend Iraq when requested.
The Bush administration, on the other hand, believes that the current Congress is not willing to commit the US to a long-term security role in Iraq.
The war in Iraq is a top concern of American voters in the 2008 presidential campaign season. The two presumptive nominees for the major political parties, Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Barack Obama, have greatly differing positions on the war. Further, the war involves enormous costs that, according to a February 2008 estimate, total $608.3 billion for FY2001-FY2008. In addition, there is the need for more troops in Afghanistan.
Hence the Bush administration seeks to reach non-binding agreements to avoid the need for congressional approval: a status of forces agreement, or SOFA, that covers issues like entry and exit rights and legal jurisdiction over US military personnel and a vaguely defined strategic framework dealing with the broader US-Iraqi security and political relationship. The next president will undoubtedly want to take a close look at these agreements so as to avoid losing the endgame in Iraq, especially after the progress achieved lately.
The authority to conduct military operations and detentions is another major Iraqi concern. The US position is that in the short term, while Iraq still needs the assistance of US troops to fight terrorism, Iraq must not tie the hands of those troops and must authorize them to conduct military operations and detentions. The Iraqi government views such an authorization as similar to the UN mandate that Iraq is working hard to end.
The other sensitive issue is civil and criminal jurisdiction. The US wants to have jurisdiction over offenses and crimes committed by its force members.
Iraqis recognize the sensitivity of this issue, bearing in mind cultural differences and different penal codes regarding severe transgressions such as murder and sex crimes. They realize that matters like these have easily developed into political issues in other nations that have such agreements.
Ceding authorization to conduct military operations and carry out detentions as well as jurisdiction over crimes committed on Iraqi soil is considered by many Iraqis as a violation of sovereignty. The Iraqi government, still struggling toward political reconciliation, cannot afford to sign an agreement that is not approved by leading political actors.
These controversies make it very difficult to conclude the agreements by July or even by the end of this year, given presidential elections in the US and provincial elections in Iraq in the coming months. If an agreement is reached without addressing Iraqi concerns, it will have disastrous consequences for Iraq and these will necessarily affect US interests.
If there is a failure to compromise and accelerate the negotiations, Iraq has the option to ask for a six-month or yearlong extension of the UN mandate.
This should either allow it to reach an acceptable agreement or give Iraq time to build up its forces and stand alone.
Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. Prior to joining the Transitional Government he served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force and worked in the military industry as director of a research and development center. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council. This article is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.