Iraq-U.S. pact sets end to occupation

Iraq’s Parliament is expected to vote Nov. 24 on an Iraq-U.S. agreement that sets a fixed 2011 end-date for withdrawal of all U.S. troops, with no exceptions or extensions.

The agreement requires U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi towns and cities by next July, and gives Iraqi authorities extensive power over the operations of U.S. forces until they leave Iraq. One key provision prohibits the U.S. from launching attacks on other countries from Iraqi soil.

It represents a major reversal for the Bush administration, which had strenuously opposed any timetable for pulling out of Iraq. The agreement, which allows the pullout to be speeded up by request of either side, is consistent with the approach of President-elect Barack Obama, who says he plans to withdraw U.S. troops within 16 months of taking office. Obama is reported to have seen the agreement and expressed approval.

Two significant last-minute U.S. concessions were removal of language that could have allowed U.S. troops to remain in Iraqi cities after the June 30, 2009, deadline, and adding a prohibition on U.S. troops searching Iraqi homes without an Iraqi court order.

Iraq’s Cabinet last week overwhelmingly voted to send the agreement to Parliament for approval.

In a closed-door meeting of leaders of all political blocs with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki the night before the Cabinet meeting, all with the sole exception of supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr either fully supported the agreement or supported it with reservations, a participant said. The prevailing view is that the pact in its latest form, despite some concerns, represents the best option now for ending the U.S. occupation and restoring Iraqi sovereignty. It is seen as preferable to extending the United Nations mandate, expiring Dec. 31, which authorizes open-ended and unfettered U.S. occupation.

This point was emphasized by Iraqi Communist Party leader Hamid Majeed Mousa, who told a public meeting of 1,000 people in Baghdad Oct. 31, “It is not a question of whether or not there should be an agreement. There has to be an agreement that ensures the evacuation of the foreign troops … their evacuation cannot take place by total rejection.”

An extension of the UN mandate, Mousa told the crowd, “would mean complete control by foreign forces and the subordination of Iraqi forces to them.”

Among the Cabinet members voting to send the agreement to Parliament was the Iraqi Communist Party’s Raid Fahmi, the country’s science and technology minister. The ICP had rejected earlier versions and has reservations about the final text, which it planned to spell out during the parliamentary debate. But overall it sees the agreement as “far better than the status quo of open-ended occupation,” party spokesperson Salam Ali said in a phone interview.

The agreement now includes two of the ICP’s key demands, ensuring that all U.S. troops leave by the end of 2011, including special forces, and removing the possibility for either the Iraqi government or the U.S. to circumvent the deadlines, Ali emphasized.

Originally Iraq had requested a 2010 deadline, but compromised on 2011 and allowing for earlier withdrawal. Whether earlier pullout is possible, Ali said, “will depend a lot on whether there is a unified national will.” Military issues, he said, cannot be separated from politics and the need to advance national political reconciliation.

Although Iraqis are eager to rid themselves of foreign troops, there is wide concern that Iraqi armed forces are not yet adequately prepared to deal with security challenges, including protecting the borders. In addition some units, especially those consisting of former sectarian militias that were absorbed into the national forces, continue to side with sectarian factions instead of the national interest.

Significantly, though, Iraq is moving to decrease its reliance on the U.S. for military training and hardware. It is negotiating with countries like Serbia, France and Russia to provide such aid.

One key concern shared by Iraqi Communists and others is that the agreement does not fully protect Iraqi funds in the U.S. and elsewhere that could be subject to claims dating back to the first Gulf War. This includes the so-called Iraq Development Fund, set up by the UN to administer Iraq’s oil revenues, and effectively controlled by the U.S. Iraqis want these funds returned to Iraqi control.

Maliki says that as soon as the agreement is adopted, he will ask the UN Security Council to revoke the authority it has assumed over Iraq since 1991 under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, and at the same time to protect Iraq’s assets abroad.

All of Iraq’s major Shia Islamic forces are supporting the agreement except the Sadrists, who have not proposed any alternative, and whose standing has declined because of their promotion of sectarian conflict. Leading Iranian officials, with close ties to Iraqi Shia groups, have now expressed support for the agreement. This is widely seen as a goodwill message to the Obama administration.

All major Sunni groups have voiced overall support for the pact, although some express concern about U.S. withdrawal — reflecting fears their clout may be weakened.

The main Kurdish parties are backing the agreement as well.

Iraq’s Parliament is expected to approve the agreement. Obama and congressional Democrats have said Congress must review the pact. However, with the agreement having Obama’s support, and the approaching Dec. 31 end of the UN mandate, it seems probable they will find a way to allow the pact to go forward.

suewebb @pww.org