July saw a major victory for opponents of the Iraq occupation. US plans to consolidate its long-term presence in Iraq were derailed by popular pressure within Iraq.
Instead of a semi-permanent “Status of Forces Agreement” (SOFA) granting US forces authority to establish more than 50 long-term bases and to conduct unilateral operations and detentions without fear of prosecution in the Iraqi justice system, the US has been forced to try to secure a scaled-down accord.
According to the Washington Post, this “temporary operating protocol” is expected to cover only the next three years. The document calls for the withdrawal of US combat troops (but not all troops) from “towns and villages” by June 2009, and from the whole country by 31 December 2011, if security conditions permit.
The US brought enormous pressure to bear on the government of Nouri al-Maliki, including the threat of recovering $20bn in outstanding court judgements against Iraq in US courts, meaning the loss of 40% of Iraq’s foreign exchange reserves.
But a majority of Iraqi MPs strongly rejected any agreement with the US not linked to a timetable for US military withdrawal, and Iraq’s top Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani “warned against any agreement that violated Iraqi sovereignty and was not approved by the Iraqi people”. Maliki himself was forced to publicly insist on a withdrawal timeline, effectively scuppering the process.
The idea of a timeline has massive support in Iraq: a majority of Iraq’s 275-member parliament signed a petition to that effect in May 2007; and 71% of Iraqis backed full withdrawal of all foreign troops within a year in a September 2006 PIPA poll.
On 16 July, however, Gordon Brown rejected the will of the Iraq people: “There will be no artificial timetable,” he said.
According to a US official “close to” the negotiations with Baghdad, the idea is “to take the heat off [Maliki] a little bit, and to rebrand the thing and counter the narrative that he’s negotiating for a permanent military presence in Iraq.”
Meanwhile, the commander of US air forces in the Middle East has completed a detailed plan for using jet fighters and bombers to protect the US troops who remain behind to “train” Iraqis after combat troop withdrawals.