Tens of Thousands of Iraqis Protest U.S. Plan to Stay Until 2011

Amy Goodman: The Iraqi cabinet is examining a controversial draft law that would allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq for three more years. U.S. military chief Michael Mullen warned Tuesday Iraq could risk "losses of significant consequence" if the deal is not approved quickly. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, also defended the deal Monday, saying it "fully restores Iraq's sovereignty."

But tens of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated against the proposed Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, on Saturday.

Under the draft agreement, U.S. soldiers would retain immunity from prosecution for all actions committed in combat, and the U.S. would retain all jurisdictions over its nationals' actions, except for actions committed "off-duty" and away from U.S. bases.

Critics have dismissed the provision, because U.S. troops seldom leave their bases in Iraq unless on authorized missions. Iraqi and U.S. negotiators are hoping to finalize the agreement before a UN mandate expires this year.

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. He has covered Iraq for many years. He is just back from Iraq. He's the author of several books. His latest is called Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq. He just returned from Iraq. He joins me here in the firehouse studio.

We're also joined by Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi blogger and analyst, consultant to the American Friends Service Committee's Iraq program. He translated a leaked version of the proposed agreement, available on his website, raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com, joining us from Washington.

Let's start with you, Raed Jarrar. What did you translate? What are the main tenets of this agreement?

Raed Jarrar: I actually translated two leaked drafts. The first one was last month. It was just a draft during their negotiations. But two days ago, someone from Baghdad sent me the final draft that was approved by al-Maliki's cabinet and sent to the political council for national reconciliation.

Now, the two drafts are very similar. The only difference is that the new one, the final one, is more politicized. They put a couple of sound bites there to, I think, to pressure the Iraqi parliament to pass it. For example, they ask for a U.S. withdrawal by 2011 in one article. But then there are many other parts of the article that actually cancel that call for a withdrawal, the same way that you described the jurisdictions over soldiers article. In one piece of the article, they give some jurisdictions to the Iraqi side, but then the other parts cancel that part. So I don't think there are a lot of significant differences. We are still in a place where the U.S. is planning permanent bases in Iraq. The U.S. soldiers and contractors are still above the Iraqi laws. And I think the agreement is still widely rejected by the Iraqi public and the Iraqi parliament that has the final say in this case.

AG: And who exactly wrote it?

RJ: The agreement was written by the two executive branches. And I think it's really shameful that after all of these months of negotiations, no one from the Iraqi parliament or the U.S. Congress knows anything about the content. Parliamentarians and Congress members end up relying on organizations like mine to find leaked agreements and translate it to them. So there is like a very exclusive negotiation happening behind closed doors. I think "negotiations" is a big word, actually; it's more the U.S. government putting an agreement and getting their allies in Iraq to bless it. I don't think there are real negotiations happening between two sovereign countries. We shouldn't forget that the U.S. allies in Iraq will say and do whatever the U.S. government asks them to do.

AG: Patrick Cockburn, you're just back from Iraq. There were tens of thousands of people protesting the agreement this weekend. Michael Mullen, the U.S. military chief there, bluntly warned Iraq on Tuesday it risks security "losses of significant consequence" unless it approves the agreement. The deadline is -- UN mandate runs out December 31st.

Patrick Cockburn: Yes, and I think that the protests against it, I mean, in this case, by the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the general mood in Iraq, it illustrates, first of all, the occupation was never popular, from day one five years ago, and it's still very unpopular. So it's going to be very difficult to get this through. You can feel the opposition to it mounting in all -- lots of corners. And the people who negotiated it, when I was talking to them in Baghdad, seemed to live in a bit of a Never-Never-Land about how this agreement was going to go down among the broad mass of Iraqis.

AG: Your book is called Muqtada al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq. How significant is his opposition to this?

PC: Well, you know, the Sadrists, Muqtada's movement, is the only sort of mass movement among the Shia, and it has shown that it has the ability to mobilize tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people against the accord. So there are signs over this week that the government has been influenced, the Iraqi government has been influenced, by the demonstrations and the general unpopularity of the agreement.

AG: President Bush has rejected a congressional effort to bar the U.S. military from controlling Iraq's oil resources. I'm reading from a piece of yours, Raed Jarrar, out of the Friends Service Committee. Before signing a bill authorizing military funding, the President issued a signing statement saying he would not be bound by a provision of the bill prohibiting expenditure of funds to exercise U.S. control of the oil resources of Iraq. First, Raed Jarrar, what does this mean?

RJ: Well, it means a lot of bad things. It means that the U.S. president has just signed -- or issued a signing statement showing the intention of the U.S. government to take over control over Iraq's oil. I think this is an amazingly frustrating and shocking thing to do on the same week that the Bush administration is trying to sign a long-term agreement legitimizing a long-term occupation of Iraq. So, it gives, I think, the wrong -- or maybe the right -- message to the Iraqi people, that the U.S. will continue occupying their country to secure oil, to control their country's oil, and maybe it shows how oil is one major reason behind this occupation.

AG: Patrick Cockburn, what happens if this agreement goes down?

PC: Well, it'll probably -- the UN mandate will probably be extended. But I think it underlines the shakiness of the U.S. position in Iraq at the moment, that they haven't been able to get this agreement through. When they first started negotiating in March, Washington, the White House, seemed to feel that they could simply go through, that the occupation would go on really as long as they wanted. And everything that's happened over the last six months shows that this isn't the situation. Whatever McCain may say, this isn't really in Washington's hands anymore. Iraq is really going to decide how long the U.S. troops remain there.

AG: You've just come from Iraq. You're here in the United States. You don't live here. I was wondering your sense in this very heated presidential campaign of the almost complete lack of reference to the war. The last presidential debate, people might have felt relief afterwards, because the words "war" were hardly mentioned --

PC: True.

AG: -- throughout the whole thing, relief that maybe there is no war going on.

PC: Sure. I mean, I think it's extraordinary. I mean, there's an obvious reason. First of all, the mortgage crisis from March, and afterwards the great financial crisis, concerns people. But I think also that the, if you like, propaganda about the surge, giving the impression that Iraq somehow had returned to peace, has had quite an impact. But, you know, it's extraordinary, in Baghdad, people -- you ask an Iraqi what the situation is, they say, well, it's a bit better. What they mean is better than the bloodbath than we had two or three years ago, but it's still the most dangerous country in the world. You know, we have a couple of bombs, twenty people killed in a day. Nobody in the outside world notices, there's a large American army there. So the crisis which has been going on in the last five years is still going on, and the war is still going on. And I imagine that this will become more apparent after the election again. But, yes, it is rather extraordinary the way it's sunk from the headlines.

AG: You write that Iraqis are staying in exile, too afraid to return.

PC: Sure. This is the best barometer on what's really happening in Iraq. You have 4.7 million Iraqis, out of a population of about 26 million, who have fled homes either within the country or 2.2 million without. They're desperate to go back, but they know it's too dangerous to. This is what really tells one that the situation is still pretty grim there.

AG: You also write about corruption being blamed as cholera is ripping through Iraq?

PC: Sure. There's a cholera outbreak south of Baghdad. There was a bad cholera outbreak last year. And one of the places where it's worst, in Hilla province, is because the chlorine they put in the water turned out to be out-of-date. And they've arrested various officials for taking bribes, for allegedly purchasing it and taking large backhanders. But that's the atmosphere of Iraq.

You know, in Baghdad, you have about, best, four hours electricity a day now. A city like Baghdad doesn't work without electricity. You have checkpoints every couple of hundred yards. You have, for instance, recently, the government said that doctors should carry guns. This is to encourage doctors who've fled -- about 6,000 doctors have fled the country -- to come back. Not surprisingly, the doctors would prefer to live in a country where you don't have a gun in one pocket and a stethoscope in the other. So I think that there is a bit of a sort of fantasy that's developed on how far Iraq has returned to peace.

AG: You've also been writing extensively about Afghanistan, saying that U.S. policy there is catastrophically misconceived. The Democrat and Republican main presidential candidates, Obama and McCain, are both for a surge in Afghanistan.

PC: Yes. It underestimates the seriousness of the situation. Suddenly this word "surge" has become a sort of talisman. But, you know, because it's very clear, from the beginning, that, you know, how has the Taliban survived? Well, it's basically backed by the Pakistani military. Yet the Bush administration was allied to the Pakistani military. So long as that continues, the war will continue.

Another 30,000 troops, will it make much difference? I doubt it. Again, I think that there's a sort of -- there was a period when Afghanistan disappeared from the headlines, just like Iraq is disappearing now, without people appreciating that the crisis was just as bad as before and likely to explode again.

PC: Back in Iraq, Patrick Cockburn, you said the UN will probably extend the mandate beyond December 31st, but if the U.S. and Iraq doesn't agree on SOFA, the Status of Forces Agreement, it will go to the Security Council. What if Russia says no?

PC: Well, they could draw it out. I mean, at the end of the day, the U.S. Army is going to be there. It will continue operating like that for the moment. This will be determined by facts on the ground, not by negotiations at the UN. I suspect that the Iraqi foreign minister said that the Russians -- or told me that the Russians had told him that they wouldn't object too strongly for the moment. So I think it probably will go through.

AG: Raed Jarrar, do you have any word on that, a possible Russian veto?

RJ: Yeah, actually, Congressman Delahunt from Massachusetts went to the Security Council a few weeks ago, and he met with the Russian ambassador personally, and he asked him the question. And the Russian ambassador is on the record now, has on the record said that Russia will not veto renewal of the UN mandate. So I think the Security Council's environment is not negative towards renewing another mandate rather than signing a bilateral agreement that will last for a long time.

AG: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent of London, his latest book, just out, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Battle for the Future of Iraq. Raed Jarrar is an Iraqi blogger, political analyst and architect, consultant for the American Friends Service Committee's Iraq program in Washington, D.C. His blog is raedinthemiddle.blogspot.com.

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