Iraq 'Cooperation agreement': Bush's "Bad Arabic Translation" Story Falls Apart

The Politico reported last week that a senior administration official stated that conflict with Congress over the U.S.-Iraqi Declaration of Principles for an ongoing bilateral agreement between the two countries "stems largely from a sloppy Arabic-to-English translation." However, say Arabic experts, the available Arabic versions of the Declaration of Principles are almost exactly the same as the official English version, and are likely direct translations from it.

The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment, nor to a request for the Arabic version which had caused the claimed translation difficulties. (Citing administration policy, personnel at the White House Media Affairs office would provide only their first names.) According to Ryan Grim, author of the Politico article, the senior administration official did not provide the Arabic document during the press briefing.

The U.S.-Iraqi Declaration of Principles was signed last November by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki. The official English version laid out the basis for a "long-term relationship of cooperation and friendship" between the United States and Iraq to be finalized by July 31st of this year. This agreement would eventually replace the current U.N. mandate under which coalition troops now operate in Iraq.

The Declaration of Principles has been the subject of hearings in Congress because it appears to make the U.S. responsible for "[p]roviding security assurances and commitments" to Iraq against "foreign aggression" and for "[s]upporting the Republic of Iraq in its efforts to combat all terrorist groups." Such security commitments, as the U.S. has made to members of NATO, have in the past always taken the form of treaties, which require Senate approval.

For its part, the Bush administration has suggested the accord will take the form of a standard status-of-forces agreement (SOFA). SOFAs can be concluded between the executive branches of the relevant countries, without the involvement of the U.S. Congress. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated this point in recent congressional testimony, stating that, as with other SOFAs, the agreement with Iraq would "not come to Congress."

However, previous SOFAs have mainly concerned basic matters such as the legal authority under which U.S. troops fall while in other countries. According to the Congressional Research Service, their review of over 70 SOFAs found that "none contain the authority to fight."

The administration has recently backed away from the security language in the Declaration of Principles. And now, as the Politico characterized it, the administration says congressional concerns "are much ado about nothing":

[A] senior administration official, who briefed two Politico reporters on the condition that he not be identified by name, said that the "security assurances" phrase "was something we struggled with. It really was." He said the original Arabic phrase was "translated in kind of an interesting way," and that a better translation might have been, "We'll consult"... The senior administration official said that different words will, in fact, be used in the final version of the agreement between the United States and Iraq.
An Arabic version of the Declaration of the Principles appears on the State Department website (screenshots: 1, 2, 3). After comparing it with the official English version, Roger Allen, Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said: "The two texts are very, very close in terms of their phrasing and general structures. I see no signs of any "translation difficulties" nor any need for such a claim...I suspect very much that indeed the Arabic is a translation of the English." Allen cited mistakes in the Arabic version that do not appear in English.

Kamal Feriali, an instructor of Arabic language and culture at the University of Florida, concurred: "The English and Arabic versions appear to be almost identical. The Arabic version unequivocally uses the words: "assurances and commitments"...The [State Department version] is almost certainly a translation from the English...[p]resent, in the Arabic, are English-sounding idioms in addition to at least one or two inadequate word-for-word renderings."

Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi-born political analyst now working for the American Friends Service Committee in Washington, D.C., says an Arabic version identical to the State Department"s appeared in Iraqi newspapers the day after it was signed, as documented on the Iraqi presidential council"s website.

The Iraqi Mission to the United Nations in New York provided another version of the Declaration of Principles in Arabic (.doc). According to Jarrar, it also seems to be a translation from the English original, and while there are slight difference in wording, "the [relevant] content is exactly the same."

Thus, says Feriali, "The administration official"s claim is therefore not accurate unless he is referring to a proto-document prepared originally in Arabic."

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