Iraq: The Necessary Withdrawal
The passage by the Iraqi Parliament in late November of the US-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) adds credibility and urgency to President-elect Obama's pledge to get US troops out of Iraq by the midpoint of his first term. Bush's costly and illegal war has been a drain on the economy to the tune of a trillion dollars if hidden costs are included, a sum likely to triple in coming decades as the public pays for the care of injured veterans. The war has left tens of thousands of military personnel wounded, suffering from brain trauma or dead. The toll on Iraqis has been monumental. It cannot end too soon.
The general Iraqi hostility to the presence of foreign troops was apparent in the process whereby the SOFA was enacted. The fierce debates that it provoked signaled that there are only two major factions in Iraqi politics: those who want the United States out within a couple of years and those who want the United States out now.
The Washington debate on withdrawal, in contrast, has been peculiarly removed from reality since the early days of the presidential campaign. Such opponents of withdrawal as John McCain called it an act of "surrender," a waving of a white flag. (To whom would we have been surrendering?) The US military would have to stay in Iraq forever, they implied, because it would be too embarrassing to leave. They demanded "victory" but carefully avoided defining what they meant by the word. They warned that parts of Iraq, or even the entire country, would become an Al Qaeda base were the United States to depart. Even as they spoke, Shiite militias were systematically cleansing about half the Sunni Arab population from the capital and a Shiite prime minister was gathering military power into his hands. The Republican visions of Osama bin Laden occupying Saddam's palaces were paranoid fantasies.
The Bush administration initially pressed on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki a SOFA text that all but formally reduced Iraq to a colony. The United States would control Iraq's air and water, would arrest and detain Iraqis at will and without the requirement of due process, would decide unilaterally what was a terrorist threat within the country and how to deal with it, and would initiate military action unilaterally. Its troops and private security contractors would enjoy complete immunity from Iraqi law. There was no timetable for US withdrawal. A year or two earlier, an Iraqi government might have had to just go along with it.
Maliki had long argued that he would not need US troops past 2009. Only in March and April 2008 did he prove, however, that he had won control of the increasingly well-trained and professional Iraqi military in ways that might allow him greater independence from the United States. Despite American advice to the contrary, he moved militarily against his main internal rival, the Shiite Mahdi Army, in Basra, Amara and Sadr City last spring. With that success under his belt, the prime minister had gained the confidence to push back against the Bush/Cheney imperium.
Despite his new role as commander in chief of a more confident Iraqi military, Maliki needs the support of other Shiite notables and parties to remain in power. His Islamic Dawa Party is relatively small. He depends on the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites, who strongly opposed any SOFA that infringed on Iraq's sovereignty. Maliki is also increasingly closely allied with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the leading Shiite party in the Iraqi Parliament, which has close links to Iran. Both ISCI and its patrons in Tehran wanted to see a timetable established for US troop withdrawals from Iraq. Not only is Iran threatened by the massive US troop presence on its borders but the occupation of Muslim countries by a non-Muslim military is anathema to the Islamic Republic. One of the grievances Ayatollah Khomeini had voiced as he made the Islamic Revolution in Iran in the 1970s was that US troops based in Iran enjoyed immunity from Iranian law.
In the end, by dint of hard bargaining and brinkmanship, Maliki secured a very different sort of agreement from the lame-duck Bush. As of January 1, the US military will have to get permission from Iraqi authorities for military operations. Off-duty, off-base US troops who commit crimes might theoretically be liable to prosecution before an Iraqi judge. Civilian security contractors will be under Iraqi law. US combat troops will withdraw from all Iraqi cities to bases by the end of June, ending their unilateral neighborhood patrols. By 2011 they will be out of the country altogether, and the Iraqi government can advance the deadline by a simple request. Some US commanders may engage in foot-dragging in meeting these deadlines, setting the stage for conflicts between Washington and Baghdad. But with Obama and Maliki committed to the withdrawal of US combat troops, it is clear that Bush's hopes for long-term bases have been dashed.
Perhaps never before in history has an invader that won a crushing military victory, and that continued to occupy its prize, voluntarily accepted such humiliating terms from the vanquished. It is difficult to discern how Bush's agreement differs from the "surrender" Democrats were accused of advocating when they put forward a similar timetable for complete withdrawal.
Even with all these concessions, the agreement only got 54 percent of Parliament's 275 potential votes, barely an absolute majority, precisely because so many Iraqi political forces found the idea of formally authorizing the further presence of US soldiers on Iraqi soil so distasteful. Powerful Shiite fundamentalist parties such as the Sadr movement and the Fadhila (Virtue) Party rejected it altogether, and the latter boycotted the vote. The Sunni Arab representatives held their noses while mostly voting for it but required that a national referendum be held on the pact. (It is scheduled for July and is not assured of passage.) In the aftermath of negotiations, the Shiite clerical establishment expressed concerns that the agreement infringed too much on Iraq's sovereignty.
Even though the SOFA allows for an extension of the 2011 deadline by mutual consent, the Obama administration would be unwise to keep US troops in Iraq beyond it. As the drawdown proceeds, the smaller numbers left behind will become increasingly vulnerable to attack, and a plurality of Iraqis clearly still means them harm. Sistani is increasingly impatient with the foreign occupation, and an explicit fatwa, or legal ruling, from him forbidding the continued presence of US soldiers could set 15 million Iraqi Shiites virulently against those remaining.