CHANGED THE LOCKS THREE TIMESPatrick Cockburn claims that details of the long term deal for maintaining US troops in Iraq sought by the Bush administration (the Security Framework agreement and associated Status of Forces Agreement) have leaked to the Independent. Similar details have emerged in Arab media in recent days as well. Nevertheless, to be taken with a grain of salt and all:

Under the terms of the new treaty, the Americans would retain the long-term use of more than 50 bases in Iraq. American negotiators are also demanding immunity from Iraqi law for US troops and contractors, and a free hand to carry out arrests and conduct military activities in Iraq without consulting the Baghdad government.

The precise nature of the American demands has been kept secret until now. The leaks are certain to generate an angry backlash in Iraq. “It is a terrible breach of our sovereignty,” said one Iraqi politician, adding that if the security deal was signed it would delegitimise the government in Baghdad which will be seen as an American pawn.

The US has repeatedly denied it wants permanent bases in Iraq but one Iraqi source said: “This is just a tactical subterfuge.” Washington also wants control of Iraqi airspace below 29,000ft and the right to pursue its “war on terror” in Iraq, giving it the authority to arrest anybody it wants and to launch military campaigns without consultation.

The powers enjoyed by the US would, reportedly, also include the ability to move foreign armies (coalition partners), as well as military hardware and equipement, in and out of Iraq without consultation with the Iraqi government. In addition, the US would not pledge to defend Iraq from foreign aggressors – but rather would retain the right to review the circumstances on a case-by-case basis. Naturally, we wouldn’t want to cede any of our sovereignty.

As mentioned previously, the Bush administration is pushing very hard to get this arrangement finalized by the end of July – in part to affect the policy trajectory of the next administration and to offer a boost to GOP hopeful John McCain. If McCain were to win, this deal would allow for a seamless continuation of Bush administration policy. If Obama were to win, there would be a certain level of deference shown to prior commitments – though this would not necessarily prevent Obama from renegotiating or creating a new set of agreements. However, it should be acknowledged, even an Obama administration might be tempted by the ability to maintain a military foothold of such dimensions in the middle of such a strategic oil producing region.

More importantly, perhaps, this deal will cause considerable upheaval in Iraq – with that country’s various political groups, and their respective constituencies, potentially pushed toward conflict (not to mention the propaganda boon it will provide Osama bin Laden, and the further degradation to our image in the region). The general state of play is as follows: Moqtada al-Sadr and certain Sunni groups oppose any long term deal outright (preferring the setting of a timetable for measured withdrawal). The Fadhila Party (an offshoot of the Sadrist movement) is also said to favor a timeline for withdrawal.

The Sadrist position enjoys widespread popular support in Iraq. Considering the Iraqi public’s overwhelming preferences, electoral considerations likely influenced, at least in part, recent statements criticizing the proposed deal emanating from Maliki’s own Dawa party, as well as our closest ally (and Iran’s) ISCI (headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim). That being said, the terms leaked thus far are so onerous that even these parties that rely on our presence to prop them up likely find certain elements difficult to swallow. In fact, the infringement upon Iraq’s sovereignty are so extensive that even one time favorite Ayad Allawi has come out against the parameters of the deal.

It should be noted, however, that thus far the opposition from Maliki and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has been to specific provisions, but not the general notion of a long term deal. In a similar vein, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has begun making his qualified opposition known. According to Hakim (via Juan Cole), Sistani lists the following elements as essential to any such deal:

– Preservation of Iraqi national sovereignty

– Transparency as to the terms of the deal

– National consensus [ed: I assume via referundum as proposed by the Sadrists, which was reportedly previously endorsed by Sistani]

– Parliamentary approval

The Bush administration opposes all four of Sistani’s planks, though the second is probably not a deal breaker, nor would the third and fourth should the votes align with the Bush administration’s goals (though that is highly unlikely – at least in terms of the national referendum. Parliamentary approval is more of a possibility considering the likely support of the Kurds as well as some Sunni groups that now prefer the US to remain as a bulwark to Shiite hegemony). Cockburn’s article states that Dawa/ISCI might be too vulnerable to push back and might fold in the end:

Although Iraqi ministers have said they will reject any agreement limiting Iraqi sovereignty, political observers in Baghdad suspect they will sign in the end and simply want to establish their credentials as defenders of Iraqi independence by a show of defiance now.

This indeed might be the case, but if Sistani opposes the deal, it would be almost impossible for Maliki and Hakim to offer their assent. That might actually provide Maliki and Hakim with a plausible excuse to explain their position to the Bush administration (“We’d love to agree to this, trust us we would, but we can’t oppose Sistani…”). Further, if they do ratify this deal, as Ilan Goldenberg points out, it will prove electoral suicide for Maliki/Hakim in the upcoming provincial elections slated, now, for November.

That is, absent a decision to postpone those elections (which could lead to intra-Sunni strife from the Awakenings groups that want a cut of political power) or absent a massive effort to manipulate the results and weaken their more powerful adversaries (the Sadrists, for example). Just to be clear, the further “weakening” of the Sadrists would likely involve military operations and large scale loss of innocent life akin to what was seen in Sadr City and Basra in recent months. In fact, rumor has it that another Sadr stronghold, Amara, might be next.

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