During the tumult of the US Presidential election campaign, the issue of Iraq, and specifically the US troop presence in Iraq, fell down the priority list as fears of the deep recession facing the US economy materialised. Despite the falling importance of the issue of Iraq, as a once dominant subject, it still resonated in discussions and (rather benign) Presidential and Vice Presidential televised debates over the respective foreign policy platforms of both camps.
President-elect Barack Obama campaigned as the “anti-war” candidate: one plank in his platform of “change” that has propelled him to the White House at a time of both domestic and international instability. Central to his claim was not only his stance against the invasion of Iraq during late 2002, as the freshest of freshman Senators, but also a plan for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq on an 18-month time-line.
Despite being dismissed as a “white flag of surrender” by the Republican Vice Presidential nominee and other members of the Grand Old Party (GOP), this policy was subsequently taken on, not only by the Department of Defence honchos, but also by President Bush. Significantly, Bush has decisively moved to enshrine this policy through the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which was fully approved by the Iraqi Parliament last Friday.
The SOFA presents a massive shift in the Bush administration’s stance on Iraq. It is an exit strategy, and despite efforts at tweaking the historical narrative currently underway through the Bush Legacy Project headed by Karl Rove, it is a massive shift by the GOP and US foreign policy vis-à-vis Iraq. While there is much being said about the symbology of the agreement, its actual content is only just beginning to be dissected.
As with many such documents, the agreement is full of detail on some points and remarkably brief and ambiguous on other, more critical points. The text is divided into 30 articles dealing with issues from the scaling down and withdrawal of US forces, jurisdictions for US forces and civilian/contractor personnel, detention of Iraqi and US nationals in Iraq, liabilities for taxes and duties, movement of people, vehicles and aircrafts, communications, currency, and other matters.
The passing of the SOFA through the Iraqi parliament was only made possible after a measure of cross-sectarian agreement was reached (a notable success), and the inclusion of a provision that it be ratified by referendum at the end of July 2009. This provision has created some ambiguity in terms of the scaling down period prior to the full withdrawal at the end of 2011 that is still being debated.
What is up for negotiation here is the still limited nature of Iraqi state sovereignty, a question that is balanced on both the highly fractious nature of Iraqi sectarian politics - as enshrined in the Iraqi parliament - as well as the on-going factionalism in Washington as to the best way to handle US disengagement from the Iraq war.
The key elements of the agreement are articles 4, 12, 24, 25 and 27, which deal with the status of US combat forces in Iraq (4), the jurisdiction over areas effectively garrisoned by US forces (12), the timetable for withdrawal (24), the termination of UN Chapter VII provisions relating to Iraq (25) and conditions relating to the use of Iraqi territory for US military operations (27).
Article 4 is particularly critical in light of the move to ratify the SOFA via referendum as it deals with the interim draw-down period between now and July 2009 where US forces would essentially be garrisoned in “agreed facilities” outside major cities and towns. Here, US combat missions now must receive the “agreement of the Government of Iraq” and be “fully coordinated with Iraqi authorities” under a newly established body, the Joint Military Operations Coordination Committee (JMOCC). However, the SOFA later states that the US will be responsible for determining whether there has been a violation of law during combat operations outside the agreed facilities, giving it control over what cases appear before the JMOCC.
Despite this, the United States will be given jurisdiction over the areas where US “combat” forces are garrisoned - the so-called “second list … agreed facilities” over which it has “exclusive use”. These agreed facilities shall be exempt from Iraqi taxes and duties, and US forces shall control all entry and exit as well as all contracting within these areas.
This raises a key area dealt with in article 12 on jurisdiction. Iraq has jurisdiction over both US military and civilian personnel outside these agreed facilities but with certain provisions. If a US citizen, military or civilian, is arrested or detained outside these areas, they are to be handed to US authorities immediately within the agreed facilities and be dealt with according to US law. In effect, therefore, the US will exercise de facto sovereignty over its military and civilian personnel outside the agreed facilities and de jure sovereignty over all issues within the agreed facilities prior to the scheduled withdrawal at the end of 2011.
The issue of jurisdiction in such cases highlights the most ambiguous element of the SOFA; co-ordination through the JMOCC. Article 23 states that the committee will be “co-chaired by representatives of each Party” (with “Party” referring to the Iraqi and US authorities). Such co-ordination has proven an intensely complicated task in peacekeeping operations throughout Africa, the Middle East, and in the former Yugoslavia with the clearest case being the dysfunctional efforts at such co-ordination in the Occupied Territories between Israeli and Palestinian officials.