Thoughts on the Iraqi SOFA agreement

SOFA stands for “Status of Forces Agreement” and we have 80 existing SOFA agreements currently with other nations where US troops are stationed.

Iraq, of course, is under the microscope and naturally anything coming out of there that might reflect negatively gets a little air time.

That’s not to say that the agreement and the process shouldn’t be examined. But I’d like to see the hype toned down a bit. It’s not like this sort of agreement is new or unique in our history.

First, it would be nice if someone would define what “permanent bases” means. Apparently the US is negotiating for about 60 of them. Will they indeed be permanent (and if so, why?) and what size are we talking about?

If they’re talking about 60 mega-sites housing vast numbers of US troops and equipment, I’d like to know that. If they’re talking about places where training cadres would reside, which obviously wouldn’t be big or extensive, I’d like to know that as well. More information helps sell the idea, not that the Pentagon has ever realized that truism. Sometimes secrecy is its own worst enemy with its own predictable outcome – only one side of the story is told:

U.S. officials have refused to publicly discuss details of the negotiations. But Iraqi politicians have become more open in their descriptions of the talks, stoking popular anger at American demands that Iraqis across the political spectrum view as a form of continued occupation.

On the Iraqi side, a lot of this is politics – something we Americans should be able to identify and sort out immediately.

“What the U.S. wants is to take the current status quo and try to regulate it in a new agreement. And what we want is greater respect for Iraqi sovereignty,” said Haider al-Abadi, a parliament member from Maliki’s Dawa party. “Signing the agreement would mean that the Iraqi government had given up its sovereignty by its own consent. And that will never happen.”

[…]

The American negotiators also called for continued control over Iraqi airspace and the right to refuel planes in the air, according to Askari, positions he said added to concerns that the United States was preparing to use Iraq as a base to attack Iran.

“We rejected the whole thing from the beginning,” said Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a senior lawmaker from the Supreme Council. “In my point of view, it would just be a new occupation with an Iraqi signature.”

Of course, our negotiator claims we want Iraqi sovereignty strengthened, not weakened.

A more objective Iraqi observer notes that the US has modified its position on 4 key issues, one of which addresses Askari’s point about attacking other countries from Iraq:

Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament who has been briefed on the negotiations, said the Americans recently had changed their position on four key issues: Private contractors would no longer be guaranteed immunity; detainees would be turned over to the Iraqi judicial system after combat operations; U.S. troops would operate only with the agreement of the Iraqi government; and the Americans would promise not to use Iraq as a base for attacking other countries.

“Now the American position is much more positive and more flexible than before,” said Mohammed Hamoud, an Iraqi deputy foreign minister who is a lead negotiator in the talks.

Those all address the sovereignty concerns (and I certainly don’t begrudge the Iraqis those concerns). And the third point puts the US in a supportive role only with the permission of the Iraqi government. Reading into those 4, I see a training and “fire brigade” type organization being built for Iraq that would see various training teams deployed through out Iraq that would work with the ISF (and most likely occupy most of the 60 “bases”). I’d guess the other part of it would be a deployed combat brigade or two which would act as a fire brigade should problems in Iraq suddenly get to a point that the ISF has difficulty handling them. They’d most likely, again by agreement, pretty well be confined to their base and training facilities.

Last, but certainly not least:

Assuming that violence in Iraq will continue to decrease, politicians such as Saghir have begun discussing another option: asking the U.S. military to leave Iraq.

“Maybe the Iraqi government will say: ‘Hey, the security situation is better. We don’t need any more troops in Iraq,’ ” he said. “Or we could have a pledge of honor where the American troops leave but come back and protect Iraq if there is any aggression.”

As I’ve said on other occasions, that should be their call. If, in fact, the sovereign nation of Iraq says, “thanks, but we can handle it from here and we’d like you to leave”, then as far as I’m concerned we should salute, pack up our kit and head for the airport. We could do so holding our heads high.

I’m simply gratified that they’re in the position now to seriously think about such a course of action.

Meanwhile, in the US, Congress makes, what I think, is a reasonable request – “let us know what’s going on:”

In Washington, the White House hastily organized a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman and ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee, respectively, demanded Monday that the administration “be more transparent with Congress, with greater consultation, about the progress and content of these deliberations.”

Should they later demand the power to ratify the agreement, however, then I’d have an objection. They’ve never ratified any of the others. But since Congress is in the oversight business, per the Constitution, a more transparent process for them is well within their right to demand.

And I still see all of this in a positive way – it’s the usual governmental sausage making, with posturing, demands and ‘anger’ a part of the process . Negotiations always have their ups and downs. If this were any country but Iraq with which we were negotiating a SOFA agreement, it wouldn’t even warrant a mention in the press.

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