US relents, rescues Iraq security pact

Despite apparent serious disagreements reflected in a series of incongruent statements by senior officials of the US and Iraqi governments, they appear to have made a breakthrough in negotiations for a new security pact. The fate of the pact appeared especially uncertain when, on June 9, the Associated Press quoted an unnamed senior George W. Bush administration official as saying that

it was “very possible” that the two countries would not reach a deal and that they would have to extend a UN mandate authorising the presence of US troops on Iraqi soil.

Four days later, Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki gave unexpected weight to speculation about the deal’s failure when he said during a visit to neighbouring Jordan, “We have reached a dead end, because when we started the talks, we found that the US demands hugely infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq, and this we can never accept.”

US officials moved quickly to downplay al-Maliki’s remarks. One day later, President Bush declared during a press conference with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, “If I were a betting man, we’ll reach an agreement with the Iraqis.” Then, to ward off widespread criticism that the agreement imposes several unpopular conditions on Iraq, Bush added, “We’re going to work hard to accommodate their desires.”

This optimistic tone was further amplified when Iraq’s foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari announced on Tuesday in Washington that, “I believe a deal is within reach,” attributing it to US “flexibility”. He said that he expected all issues to be resolved by the end of July. However, Zebari warned, “We have to be realistic about the obstacles.” These include the thorny question of whether the US military will have the authority to detain Iraqi citizens and hold them in US custody.

Zebari’s optimism appeared to stem from a US willingness to drop a demand that foreign civilian contractors operating in the country should enjoy immunity from Iraqi laws. Washington has also reportedly agreed to reduce its demand for 58 military bases to a number in the “low dozens”.

The US insists it will not use Iraq to launch an attack against other countries in the region, such as Iran or Syria, Zebari was quoted as saying — although, as some of the language in the March 7 draft agreement appears to be deliberately misleading and leaves open the possibility for the US to respond “defensively” to threats to its troops or other interests.

Bush has just six more months left in the White House, meaning that time

is more on the side of the Iraqis than the US administration. Recognising that, and given domestic opposition in Iraq to the deal, Iraqi leaders appear to want to pressure the US to make as many concessions as possible.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that Baghdad and Washington are negotiating provides a legal basis for the future presence of US troops in Iraq. The US has around 80 similar agreements with other countries around the world, including Japan, Germany and South Korea.

Opinions in Iraq on the SOFA pact are diverse and in some cases deeply divided. While some reject it on nationalistic or religious grounds or both, others support a deal but want a clear timetable for eventual withdrawal of US troops to avoid an “open-ended occupation”.