Britain’s military presence in Basra is “not necessary for maintaining security and control”, Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, told The Times in an interview that appeared on 13 October. “There might be a need for their experience in training and some technological issues,” he added, “but as a fighting force, I don’t think that is necessary.”
Al-Maliki, a leading figure in Dawa, the Shia party, also noted that the status of Britain’s non-combat forces is also in doubt, as the UN Security Council “mandate” for the occupation forces runs out on 31 December – and Britain has yet to begin negotiating a bilateral “status of forces agreement” (SOFA).
Britain is apparently hoping to base its SOFA on the US version – which has not yet been agreed.
US out by 2011?
The latest (13 October) version of the US-Iraq SOFA, which has not yet been agreed by Iraq’s parliament, states that US combat forces will withdraw from all Iraqi cities, towns and villages “no later than June 30th, 2009” and that “The US forces shall withdraw from Iraqi territories no later than December 31st 2011”.
This is a significant climb-down from initial US plans (see coverage in PN 2501), but there are some major question marks. As the New York Times explained, the draft states that these “date goals” could be changed “by mutual agreement”, and might be “accelerated or delayed” depending on the ability of the Iraqis to take over the security mission.
On the other hand, even with the new US concessions, it is quite likely that no agreement will be reached by 31 December. Indeed, on 21 October, Iraq’s cabinet reportedly discussed the pact and “unanimously called for changes despite US warnings that time is running out for Baghdad to approve the deal” (AFP, 22 October).
Key concerns include the immunity that would continue to be granted to US forces under almost all practical circumstances (some cosmetic concessions were made in the latest draft) and a concern that the US might press the new Iraqi government to extend the presence of occupation forces. None of this probably means very much in practice – after all, the Iraqi government has had the theoretical right to ask the US to leave since mid-2004 - but it does indicate a significant shift inside Iraq.