… But US Troops Will Still Be Fighting in Iraq after Dec. 31

Like many others around the world, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is biding his time for the change of presidents in the White House. It was he who decided to hold up the status-of-forces agreement concluded with Washington until he can affix his signature opposite that of the incoming US president in January 2009 instead of George W. Bush.

Maliki is sure that some makeshift measure will keep American troops present and operational in Iraq in the interim period beyond the Dec. 31 deadline laid down by the UN mandate.

This calculation was behind the Iraqi prime minister’s push for a cabinet vote on Oct. 21 to delay endorsement of the security document until changes are introduced.

The Kurds who opposed this motion were in the minority, while the main Shiite factions fell in line behind the prime minister, reluctant to risk their political future by going against Iran and the Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr’s campaign to bar the treaty.

US defense secretary Robert Gates said later in an interview: “We basically stop doing anything in Iraq if there is no status-of-forces agreement or a renewed UN mandate for US troops by the end of the year.” While there is “great reluctance” among US officials to negotiate any changes in the draft text, he said, “Going back to the UN, there is no assurance that you’d get a clean rollover.”

US ambassador Ryan Crocker advised the Iraqis in an interview to the Washington Post: “Without legal authority to operate, we do not operate. That means no security operations, no logistics, no training, no support for Iraqis on the borders, no nothing.”

This has not deterred the Iraqi prime minister. He is confident that, after stating their positions as forcefully as possible, Washington and his government will work something out to keep US operations afloat.


Tehran, Damascus want Americans out


The agreement covers the presence of US forces beyond Dec. 31, 2008.

It calls for their withdrawal from Iraqi cities by next June 30 and from the entire country by the end of 2011, while allowing those timelines to be extended by mutual consent.

It gives the U.S. legal jurisdiction over American troops and civilian government personnel accused of crimes while on-base or on-duty. Iraqi authorities would have jurisdiction over U.S. personnel accused of serious crimes while off-base or off-duty.

Maliki sees two major advantages in leaving the document unsigned:

1. It eases the heavy pressure on him not to endorse the agreement coming from Tehran, Damascus and Iraqi Sunni and Shiite Muslim factions.

Tehran and Damascus are convinced that the three-year deadline for the US army’s exit from Iraq should not be taken literally but rather as a prescription for the indefinite stay of large-scale American forces. Both are urging the Baghdad government to rid the country of the US military sooner rather than later – within eighteen months at the outside.

The rival Iraqi communities demanding major amendments in the status-of-forces provisions are in no hurry for the American army to leave. Their delaying tactics will give them time to get set militarily, financially and politically for the post-American period and potential inter-communal contests and conflicts.

2. The Iraqi prime minister expects to find more common language with Bush’s successor than the incumbent administration. He believes that the next president will engage Tehran in dialogue, thus boosting his own leverage for adjusting the timeline for the American withdrawal to considerations of his personal political agenda.

The SOFA therefore looks like gathering dust for a while, unless Washington knuckles under and accepts previously rejected amendments.

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