The Status of Forces Agreement is Not the "Beginning of the End"

CAIRO, Dec 22 (IPS) -- Washington and Baghdad signed a security agreement earlier this month allowing the U.S. to maintain a military presence in Iraq for another three years. But while Baghdad officials hailed the pact as the "beginning of the end" of the U.S.-led occupation, Egyptian commentators -- like much of the Iraqi opposition -- say the agreement simply reflects U.S. strategic interests.

"The pact reflects the balance of power and is therefore entirely in the interest of the U.S.," Ahmed Thabet, political science professor at Cairo University told IPS. "It provides formal cover for the continuation of the U.S. occupation of Iraq and leaves all decision-making -- and the very fate of the country -- in American hands."

After months of wrangling between the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad and Iraqi opposition groups, the agreement was ceremonially signed Dec. 14 by outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The pact lays down a timetable for the phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by June of next year and the complete departure of the U.S. military from Iraq as of Jan. 1, 2012.

In addition to a timetable for troop withdrawals, the treaty also puts limited restrictions on U.S. military operations in Iraq and grants Baghdad a degree of legal jurisdiction -- under certain conditions -- over U.S. troops.

While Iraqi government spokesmen defended the pact as a step towards the eventual departure of all foreign troops from the country, Iraqi opposition groups blasted the deal. Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, whose followers staged angry demonstrations against the agreement, called it "a pact of shame and degradation."

In Egypt, a major Arab ally of the U.S., the signing of the agreement was met by official silence. Independent Egyptian commentators, however, were quick to criticize the document, which they say amounts to little more than political cover for the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

"The agreement is simply a formal continuation of the longstanding U.S. occupation and will ultimately allow American troops to stay in Iraq indefinitely," Gamal Mazloum, retired army general and expert in military affairs, told IPS.

Most importantly, said Mazloum, the pact does not clearly and definitively call for the full withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the Jan. 1, 2012 deadline.

"The terms of the agreement are ambiguous and contain a number of possible legal loopholes," he said. "Although it states that the U.S. military presence is temporary, there are a number of stipulations that could allow it to extend its mandate further.

"Iraqi government officials say the pact represents the 'beginning of the end' of the U.S. military in Iraq," Mazloum added. "But at the same time, they're publicly saying that U.S. forces might be needed for another ten years."

On Dec. 11, a spokesman for Al-Maliki reportedly told a Pentagon press briefing that U.S. troops might be required to provide security in Iraq for up to another decade. "The Iraqi military is not going to be built in the three years. We do need many more years," he was quoted as saying. "It might be ten years."

In a statement issued days later, the Iraqi PM insisted that his spokesman's comments "did not represent the Iraqi government."

Thabet, too, expressed serious reservations over the likelihood of a full U.S. withdrawal within the next three years, pointing to recent calls by the U.S. Defense Department for the establishment of permanent military bases throughout Iraq. "In this case, the U.S. will be able to say it has withdrawn while simultaneously maintaining strategic command centres from which it can force its policies on the Iraqi government and people," he said.

On Dec. 13, fears that the agreement's terms would not be respected by U.S. military planners were partially borne out when the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, announced that U.S. "training teams" would remain in Iraqi cities beyond the Jun. 30 deadline.

The agreement was officially approved -- by a slim majority -- by the Iraqi parliament late last month. Nevertheless, critics say the pact lacks the support of the Iraqi public, the vast majority of which would like to see the immediate departure of all foreign troops.

"Washington forged the security pact with the government in Baghdad, not with the Iraqi people," said Thabet. "And the only Iraqis that will benefit from it are those individuals and political parties -- be they Sunni, Shia or Kurdish -- working in the interest of the U.S."

Thabet added that, almost six years after the U.S.-led invasion, there is still "tremendous popular opposition" to the presence of foreign troops in the country. "The occupation hasn't benefited anyone except the so-called Iraqi 'expatriates' that cooperated with U.S. war planners in Washington and London in advance of the invasion," he said.

Nor, say critics, will the signing of the agreement have a positive impact on Iraq's dangerous security environment.

"I seriously doubt that the pact will improve the security situation, since the U.S. military itself -- which broke up the country's existing police apparatuses and encouraged sectarian conflict -- is the reason behind most of the instability," said Mazloum.

He went on to point out that, according to the document's small print, U.S. soldiers operating in Iraq will for the most part remain subject to U.S. -- not Iraqi -- law. "This means that war crimes perpetrated by U.S. troops can be expected to continue," he said.

"Iraq will never be stable until all foreign military forces completely withdraw from the country," Mazloum said. "But given the vague terms of the new pact, I can't see this happening for a very, very long time."

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