Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

On the Iraqi SOFA

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Update from AIJAC

December 9, 2008
Number 12/03 #03


This Update deals with the situation in Iraq, and the policy framework there for the Obama Administration, following the passage by the Iraqi parliament of the "Status of Forces Agreement" (SOFA) with the US last week.

First up, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer says the new agreement represents the "single most important geopolitical advance in the region" for the US since the early 1970s, and it must not go unmarked. He notes the large majority for the agreement, the normal democratic politics that went into its passage, and how remarkable this is given the situation in Iraq a mere two years ago. He says a "Self-sustaining, democratic and pro-American Iraq" appears within reach, which would both represent a major defeat for Teheran and serve as a model for changing Arab society to challenge Islamic extremism. For the full article, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, some interesting additional comment on the situation on the ground in Iraq comes from reporters Michael Yon and Michael Totten

Next up, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points out the remarkable advances of the Iraqi judiciary. He mentions the recent case of Mithal a-Alusi, a liberal Iraqi legislator who had his parliamentary immunity stripped for the "crime" of travelling to Israel, but whose status has been fully restored, with all charges dropped, by the Iraqi Federal High Court. Friedman agrees with Krauthammer that, if the withdrawal is handled properly, Iraq "has the potential to eventually tilt the Arab-Muslim world in a different direction." For his complete argument, CLICK HERE. More on the al-Alusi judgement discussed by Friedman is here.

Finally, military historian Frederick Kagan says we now have a situation where Iraq is a sovereign, independent state, which shares America's desire for US troops to depart as quickly as practical, but also wants to be a strategic partner to the US. He points to common interests between the US and Iraq on al-Qaeda, Iran, Syria, and other regional priorities which can be the basis of such a partnership. He argues that the Obama administration will need to avoid risking that future partnership by "front-loading" military withdrawals too soon, especially as provincial and parliamentary elections are coming up. For all the details, CLICK HERE. Some similar analysis comes from the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and American security analyst Thomas Donnelly.

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Milestone in Baghdad

By Charles Krauthammer

Washington Post, Friday, December 5, 2008; A25


The barbarism in Mumbai and the economic crisis at home have largely overshadowed an otherwise singular event: the ratification of military and strategic cooperation agreements between Iraq and the United States.

They must not pass unnoted. They were certainly noted by Iran, which fought fiercely to undermine the agreements. Tehran understood how a formal U.S.-Iraqi alliance endorsed by a broad Iraqi consensus expressed in a freely elected parliament changes the strategic balance in the region.

For the United States, this represents the single most important geopolitical advance in the region since Henry Kissinger turned Egypt from a Soviet client into an American ally. If we don't blow it with too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq, we will have turned a chronically destabilizing enemy state at the epicenter of the Arab Middle East into an ally.

Also largely overlooked at home was the sheer wonder of the procedure that produced Iraq's consent: classic legislative maneuvering with no more than a tussle or two -- tame by international standards (see YouTube: "Best Taiwanese Parliament Fights of All Time!") -- over the most fundamental issues of national identity and direction.

The only significant opposition bloc was the Sadrists, a mere 30 seats out of 275. The ostensibly pro-Iranian religious Shiite parties resisted Tehran's pressure and championed the agreement. As did the Kurds. The Sunnis put up the greatest fight. But their concern was that America would be withdrawing too soon, leaving them subject to overbearing and perhaps even vengeful Shiite dominance.

The Sunnis, who only a few years ago had boycotted provincial elections, bargained with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, trying to exploit his personal stake in agreements he himself had negotiated. They did not achieve their maximum objectives. But they did get formal legislative commitments for future consideration of their grievances, from amnesty to further relaxation of the de-Baathification laws.

That any of this democratic give-and-take should be happening in a peaceful parliament just two years after Iraq's descent into sectarian hell is in itself astonishing. Nor is the setting of a withdrawal date terribly troubling. The deadline is almost entirely symbolic. U.S. troops must be out by Dec. 31, 2011 -- the weekend before the Iowa caucuses, which, because God is merciful, will arrive again only in the very fullness of time. Moreover, that date is not just distant but flexible. By treaty, it can be amended. If conditions on the ground warrant, it will be.

True, the war is not over. As Gen. David Petraeus repeatedly insists, our (belated) successes in Iraq are still fragile. There has already been an uptick in terror bombings, which will undoubtedly continue as what's left of al-Qaeda, the Sadrist militias and the Iranian-controlled "special groups" try to disrupt January's provincial elections.

The more long-term danger is that Iraq's reborn central government becomes too strong and, by military or parliamentary coup, the current democratic arrangements are dismantled by a renewed dictatorship that abrogates the alliance with the United States.

Such disasters are possible. But if our drawdown is conducted with the same acumen as was the surge, not probable. A self-sustaining, democratic and pro-American Iraq is within our reach. It would have two hugely important effects in the region.

First, it would constitute a major defeat for Tehran, the putative winner of the Iraq war, according to the smart set. Iran's client, Moqtada al-Sadr, still hiding in Iran, was visibly marginalized in parliament -- after being militarily humiliated in Basra and Baghdad by the new Iraqi security forces. Moreover, the major religious Shiite parties were the ones that negotiated, promoted and assured passage of the strategic alliance with the United States, against the most determined Iranian opposition.

Second is the regional effect of the new political entity on display in Baghdad -- a flawed yet functioning democratic polity with unprecedented free speech, free elections and freely competing parliamentary factions. For this to happen in the most important Arab country besides Egypt can, over time (over generational time, the time scale of the war on terror), alter the evolution of Arab society. It constitutes our best hope for the kind of fundamental political-cultural change in the Arab sphere that alone will bring about the defeat of Islamic extremism. After all, newly sovereign Iraq is today more engaged in the fight against Arab radicalism than any country on earth, save the United States -- with which, mirabile dictu, it has now thrown in its lot.

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Obama’s Iraq Inheritance

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times, Published: November 29, 2008

Here’s a story you don’t see very often. Iraq’s highest court told the Iraqi Parliament last Monday that it had no right to strip one of its members of immunity so he could be prosecuted for an alleged crime: visiting Israel for a seminar on counterterrorism. The Iraqi justices said the Sunni lawmaker, Mithal al-Alusi, had committed no crime and told the Parliament to back off.

That’s not all. The Iraqi newspaper Al-Umma al-Iraqiyya carried an open letter signed by 400 Iraqi intellectuals, both Kurdish and Arab, defending Alusi. That takes a lot of courage and a lot of press freedom. I can’t imagine any other Arab country today where independent judges would tell the government it could not prosecute a parliamentarian for visiting Israel — and intellectuals would openly defend him in the press.

In the case of Iraq, though, the federal high court, in a unanimous decision, vacated the Parliament’s rescinding of Alusi’s immunity, with the decision delivered personally by Chief Justice Medhat al-Mahmoud. The decision explained that although a 1950s-era law made traveling to Israel a crime punishable by death, Iraq’s new Constitution establishes freedom to travel. Therefore the Parliament’s move was “illegal and unconstitutional because the current Constitution does not prevent citizens from traveling to any country in the world,” Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar, spokesman for the court, told The Associated Press. The judgment even made the Parliament speaker responsible for the expenses of the court and the defense counsel!

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect Iraq to have relations with Israel anytime soon, but the fact that it may be developing an independent judiciary is good news. It’s a reminder of the most important reason for the Iraq war: to try to collaborate with Iraqis to build progressive politics and rule of law in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world, a region that stands out for its lack of consensual politics and independent judiciaries. And it’s a reminder that a decent outcome may still be possible in Iraq, especially now that the Parliament has endorsed the U.S.-Iraqi plan for a 2011 withdrawal of American troops.

Al Qaeda has not been fully defeated in Iraq; suicide bombings are still an almost daily reality. But it has been dealt a severe blow, which I believe is one reason the Muslim jihadists — those brave warriors who specialize in killing women and children and defenseless tourists — have turned their attention to softer targets like India. Just as they tried to stoke a Shiite-Sunni civil war in Iraq, and failed, they are now trying to stoke a Hindu-Muslim civil war in India.

If Iraq can keep improving — still uncertain — and become a place where Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites can write their own social contract and live together with a modicum of stability, it could one day become a strategic asset for the United States in the post-9/11 effort to promote different politics in the Arab-Muslim world.

How so? Iraq is a geopolitical space that for the last three decades of the 20th century was dominated by a Baathist dictatorship, which, though it provided a bulwark against Iranian expansion, did so at the cost of a regime that murdered tens of thousands of its own people and attacked three of its neighbors.

In 2003, the United States, under President Bush, invaded Iraq to change the regime. Terrible postwar execution and unrelenting attempts by al Qaeda to provoke a Sunni-Shiite civil war turned the Iraqi geopolitical space into a different problem — a maelstrom of violence for four years, with U.S. troops caught in the middle. A huge price was paid by Iraqis and Americans. This was the Iraq that Barack Obama ran against.

In the last year, though, the U.S. troop surge and the backlash from moderate Iraqi Sunnis against Al Qaeda and Iraqi Shiites against pro-Iranian extremists have brought a new measure of stability to Iraq. There is now, for the first time, a chance — still only a chance — that a reasonably stable democratizing government, though no doubt corrupt in places, can take root in the Iraqi political space.

That is the Iraq that Obama is inheriting. It is an Iraq where we have to begin drawing down our troops — because the occupation has gone on too long and because we have now committed to do so by treaty — but it is also an Iraq that has the potential to eventually tilt the Arab-Muslim world in a different direction.

I’m sure that Obama, whatever he said during the campaign, will play this smart. He has to avoid giving Iraqi leaders the feeling that Bush did — that he’ll wait forever for them to sort out their politics — while also not suggesting that he is leaving tomorrow, so they all start stockpiling weapons.

If he can pull this off, and help that decent Iraq take root, Obama and the Democrats could not only end the Iraq war but salvage something positive from it. Nothing would do more to enhance the Democratic Party’s national security credentials than that.

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Out of Conflict, a Partnership        

By Frederick W. Kagan

New York Times  
Publication Date: November 23, 2008
  

Iraq offers the Obama administration an extraordinary opportunity. Overall violence and American casualties have dropped remarkably since the surge began last year. Iraqi security forces have grown in size and effectiveness. American and Iraqi troops have inflicted a series of defeats on insurgents and militias. The slow but steady construction of a new post-Saddam Hussein state structure will lift the burden of securing Iraq against internal disorder from American forces in the next couple of years, if current trends continue.

The situation remains delicate, however, as Iraq moves into provincial elections in January and parliamentary elections at the end of 2009. Although Iraqi forces increasingly bear the burden of fighting (and, increasingly, peacekeeping), they will need continuing American support. The government of Iraq has recognized all these facts by forging the status of forces agreement with Washington, which was endorsed by the cabinet a week ago and sent to the Council of Representatives for approval.

America will withdraw its forces from patrolling in Iraq and will significantly reduce the number of soldiers there over the coming years--that is not and never has been in question.

The agreement encapsulates the basic reality in Iraq today: Iraq is an independent, sovereign state able to negotiate on an equal basis with the United States; Iraqis and Americans both want American troops to leave Iraq as quickly as possible and believe that a withdrawal will be feasible by 2011. Above all, the agreement highlights Iraq's desire to become a strategic partner with the United States, an opportunity the Obama administration can seize.

Leaving aside the debate in America about what ties global Al Qaeda has to Al Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqis overwhelmingly think that they have indeed been fighting an arm of Osama bin Laden's organization. Every major political grouping in Iraq rejects Al Qaeda and supports the fight against its ideology. Iraqis increasingly pride themselves on being the first Arab state to reject the terrorists.

This summer, leading members of Anbar Awakening, a group of Sunni leaders who have joined forces with the United States and the Shiite-led Baghdad government, circulated a memo about how they could help Afghans develop their own "awakenings" to fight Al Qaeda on their territory. As we look for allies in the struggle against Al Qaeda, Iraqis are our most natural and eager partners.

America and Iraq also have common interests vis-à-vis Iran. Iraqis want to remain independent of Tehran, as they have now demonstrated by signing the agreement with the United States over Iran's vigorous objections. They want to avoid military conflict with Iran, and so does America. Iraqis share our fear that Iran may acquire nuclear weapons, which would threaten their independence. And they resent Iran's efforts to maintain insurgent and terrorist cells that undermine their government.

Of course, the Iraqis recognize, as we do, that Iraq and Iran are natural trading partners and have a religious bond as majority Shiite. This may be to our benefit: the millions of Iranian pilgrims who will visit Iraqi holy sites at Najaf and Karbala over the coming years will take home a vision of a flourishing, peaceful, secular, religiously tolerant and democratic Muslim state.

The reintegration of Iraq into the Arab world is also under way. Many Arab states have already begun to open embassies in Baghdad. We should keep in mind that Iraq also shares interests with America regarding Saudi Arabia and Syria. Increasingly, Iraqi leaders speak quietly of replacing the Saudi kingdom as the dominant Arab state. Iraq also knows that Syria has allowed Al Qaeda fighters free passage across their common border for years, and has served as a staging base for Iranian support to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Washington and Baghdad have a common interest in persuading the Syrian regime to abandon its support of terror groups.

America will withdraw its forces from patrolling in Iraq and will significantly reduce the number of soldiers there over the coming years--that is not and never has been in question. The timing and nature of that withdrawal, however, is extremely delicate.

It is vital that we help see Iraq through during its year of elections, and avoid the temptation to "front-load" the withdrawal in 2009. It is equally vital that we develop a broader strategic relationship with Iraq using all elements of our national power in tandem with Iraq's to pursue our common interests. President Obama has the chance to do more in Iraq than win the war. He can win the peace.

Military historian Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute.

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