A Close Look At The Iraq Status Of Forces Agreement [Part 2]

[ Posted Tuesday, December 9th, 2008 – 23:29 UTC ]

[Note: This is the second of a two-part series. The first installment ran yesterday, and covered the first half of the Iraq SOFA in detail.]


The Status Of Forces Agreement ("SOFA") between Iraq and the United States covers wide-ranging and significant issues between the two countries.

It also covers the trivial and insignificant as well. I don't know why, but this paragraph in Article 18 -- "Official and Military Vehicles" -- seemed to me to be about the most trivial in the entire document. So we start today's look at the SOFA with a very small-bore issue.

1. Official vehicles shall display official Iraqi license plates to be agreed upon between the Parties. Iraqi authorities shall, at the request of the authorities of the United States Forces, issue registration plates for official vehicles of the United States Forces without fees, according to procedures used for the Iraqi Armed Forces. The authorities of the United States Forces shall pay to Iraqi authorities the cost of such plates.

I love how America has to pay for license plates, personally. Elsewhere in the agreement, America is completely and utterly exempted from any import fees, export fees, licensing regulations (for drivers licenses and others), airport fees, dock fees, air traffic control fees, and other such lucrative state revenue streams -- including even vehicle licensing fees. But the Iraqis apparently held firm on the issue of... the cost of the vehicle license plates? If they're that powerful, I would hate to deal with the Iraqi Department of Motor Vehicles (or whatever it is called).

Anyway, enough of that. Because there truly are weighty issues to discuss. Such as the status of prisoners. Since this is an important issue, here is all of Article 22 -- "Detention."

1. No detention or arrest may be carried out by the United States Forces (except with respect to detention or arrest of members of the United States Forces and of the civilian component) except through an Iraqi decision issued in accordance with Iraqi law and pursuant to Article 4.

2. In the event the United States Forces detain or arrest persons as authorized by this Agreement or Iraqi law, such persons must be handed over to competent Iraqi authorities within 24 hours from the time of their detention or arrest.

3. The Iraqi authorities may request assistance from the United States Forces in detaining or arresting wanted individuals.

4. Upon entry into force of this Agreement, the United States Forces shall provide to the Government of Iraq available information on all detainees who are being held by them. Competent Iraqi authorities shall issue arrest warrants for persons who are wanted by them. The United States Forces shall act in full and effective coordination with the Government of Iraq to turn over custody of such wanted detainees to Iraqi authorities pursuant to a valid Iraqi arrest warrant and shall release all the remaining detainees in a safe and orderly manner, unless otherwise requested by the Government of Iraq and in accordance with Article 4 of this Agreement.

5. The United States Forces may not search houses or other real estate properties except by order of an Iraqi judicial warrant and in full coordination with the Government of Iraq, except in the case of actual combat operations conducted pursuant to Article 4.

Let's take that one at a time. The U.S. can no longer arrest anyone (except their own people) unless the Iraqi legal system agrees before the fact. We can't even search a house without an Iraqi search warrant. If Americans do arrest anyone, they have to be handed over to the Iraqis within 24 hours. The only time Americans will even participate in such arrests is when the Iraqis ask their help. And the U.S. has to (on January 1, 2009) hand over everyone they currently are holding to the Iraqis, along with a list of these people. Iraq may detain them further, or they may simply let them go -- because it will be entirely their decision to make.

That is a pretty sweeping concession towards full Iraqi sovereignty by President Bush, but again (see yesterday's column), this is an agreement chock full of concessions won by the Iraqis during the negotiating process, and chock empty of most of Bush's original negotiating positions. American forces are currently holding thousands of Iraqis in prisons. Many of these people, or even most of these people, have done nothing wrong. Some of them have been held for years, some merely months. Recent reports indicate that the conditions they are being held in have drastically improved in the past few years, and they are even allowed to contact family members once a week now. But they still have no access to lawyers, and most of them are completely unaware of any reason for their detention, because the Americans won't tell them why they're being held. There is no legal recourse for these people at all. They are being held in legal limbo, in other words, with no rights and no courts to turn to.

That will all change New Year's Day. My prediction is that there will be a mass release of these people -- as high as 80 to 90 percent of the total -- immediately afterwards. Whether the America media covers it or not is an open question, though.

The next section is the bitterest pill George Bush was forced to swallow in the entire agreement. It too is worth reproducing here in full. Here is Article 24 -- "Withdrawal of the United States Forces from Iraq."

Recognizing the performance and increasing capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces, the assumption of full security responsibility by those Forces, and based upon the strong relationship between the Parties, an agreement on the following has been reached:

1. All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.

2. All United States combat forces shall withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and localities no later than the time at which Iraqi Security Forces assume full responsibility for security in an Iraqi province, provided that such withdrawal is completed no later than June 30, 2009.

3. United States combat forces withdrawn pursuant to paragraph 2 above shall be stationed in the agreed facilities and areas outside cities, villages, and localities to be designated by the JMOCC before the date established in paragraph 2 above.

4. The United States recognizes the sovereign right of the Government of Iraq to request the departure of the United States Forces from Iraq at any time. The Government of Iraq recognizes the sovereign right of the United States to withdraw the United States Forces from Iraq at any time.

5. The Parties agree to establish mechanisms and arrangements to reduce the number of the United States Forces during the periods of time that have been determined, and they shall agree on the locations where the United States Forces will be present.

A little history of how this was hammered out is relevant here. Bush started from the position "no timetables for withdrawal," which he stuck to as long as he could. Then he tried a Machiavellian way of having his cake and eating it too -- he tried to "fuzzy up" the language, so that he could claim to the American public that there was no timetable in the agreement, while the Iraqis could claim to their public that there was a hard deadline for withdrawal. Perhaps "Orwellian" is a better way to describe this, as it gave rise to the Bush administration's memorable phrase "we have only agreed to aspirational goals for a time horizon," which he really, really hoped would work. It didn't. Not only did the American media actually scoff at such horse manure (asking "what exactly is an 'aspirational goal for a time horizon'?" but the Iraqi public didn't buy it either. Maliki went back to the negotiating table and demanded clear language and a clear timeline for withdrawal. Bush caved. This was about the same time Maliki made friendly comments about Barack Obama's 16-month timetable. So Bush pushed back, and demanded that the timetable end one day before 2012 started (far enough out, he thought, for nobody to notice that it was what Obama was demanding and what Bush adamantly refused to back). But Maliki's countermove was even stronger. Maliki upped the ante, by agreeing to the December 31, 2011 date but changed the stakes to "all U.S. forces out" by that date (previously they had been discussing "combat troops" and not "all U.S. forces"). furthermore, Maliki added in the bit about U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraqi cities in six months, which (again) raised the ante. Bush caved, once again, and this is what Maliki got in the end.

Examining this section in detail, we find that there is nothing here to stop Obama from withdrawing forces earlier than the deadlines. This is a key point many have missed, from the commentary I've read. The right wing has been pretty quiet in general about the SOFA (since they would have to admit that Bush was forced into a timeline after all... which, up until the agreement was announced, they were denouncing as: "waving the white flag of surrender," "telling the terrorists when we are leaving," and other equally nefarious phrases). But the left has somehow misread this section as "Obama's hands are tied, he has to stay until almost 2012!" which is just not true. Paragraph four clearly states that the Iraqis can kick us out any time they want, and we can leave any time we want -- as long as the deadlines are otherwise met.

Something else most people aren't bothering to notice is that this is going to be an enormous change in the path of the occupation. In six months, the U.S. will move all combat forces out of Iraqi cities and onto remote bases. This will be an enormous change in daily life in Iraqi cities and towns. It could wind up being a good thing or a bad thing, but (setting such speculation aside for now) it is definitely going to be a significant thing. And it may even allow Obama to withdraw American forces a lot faster than he might have, because "six months" has no relation to "the situation on the ground." Meaning Obama will have political cover after that point to pull troops out just about as fast as can be managed ("They're just sitting out in the desert, we may as well bring them home now").

So while some have decried this timetable for withdrawal, I think it is going to wind up facilitating a much faster overall American withdrawal than would have happened without the six month deadline. Events may prove me wrong, but that's how I see it now.

The next section was yet another concession shoved down Bush's metaphorical throat by Maliki. Or maybe that should be "Cheney's throat." Here is Article 27 -- "Deterrence of Security Threats."

In order to strengthen security and stability in Iraq and to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and stability, the Parties shall work actively to strengthen the political and military capabilities of the Republic of Iraq to deter threats against its sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, and its constitutional federal democratic system. To that end, the Parties agree as follows:

In the event of any external or internal threat or aggression against Iraq that would violate its sovereignty, political independence, or territorial integrity, waters, airspace, its democratic system or its elected institutions, and upon request by the Government of Iraq, the Parties shall immediately initiate strategic deliberations and, as may be mutually agreed, the United States shall take appropriate measures, including diplomatic, economic, or military measures, or any other measure, to deter such a threat.

The Parties agree to continue close cooperation in strengthening and maintaining military and security institutions and democratic political institutions in Iraq, including, as may be mutually agreed, cooperation in training, equipping, and arming the Iraqi Security Forces, in order to combat domestic and international terrorism and outlaw groups, upon request by the Government of Iraq.

Iraqi land, sea, and air shall not be used as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries.

In other words, American CANNOT use Iraq to launch a war against Iran (or Syria, or anywhere else). Now, this one isn't going to be as important under President Obama as it would have under President McCain (for obvious reasons). But, once again, Maliki got his way on the issue in the end.

There are other, smaller concessions as well, such as America handing over control of the "Green Zone" right away. And the agreement ends with about the only thing Bush got (half) his way on. From Article 30 -- "The Period for which the Agreement is Effective" comes the following:

3. This Agreement shall terminate one year after a Party provides written notification to the other Party to that effect.

Bush's initial negotiating position was two years instead of one. But he managed to tie Obama to his agreement for at least the first year of his term.

This, I believe, is going to turn out to be a moot point. Because of all the other concessions Bush was forced into by Maliki, I think this agreement is something that President Obama will be able to work with, whether he keeps to a strict 16-month timetable or not. Obama may keep a "residual force" in Iraq longer than that, but even they will have to leave when the three years is up. Meaning that this agreement is a solid a timetable for withdrawal, after all.

The irony is that Bush was the one to agree to it. Meaning if Iraq explodes after we leave, when the right wing tries to pin it on Obama, they will be wrong. Because Bush signed the agreement which forced him to concede what he has been fighting for years -- a strict timetable for withdrawal of all American troops. Bush (in trying to tie Obama's hands), wound up doing exactly what he didn't want to do -- which will tie however Iraq ends like an anchor to Bush's neck.

But petty American political blame games aside, the real conclusion to be drawn out of what Bush agreed to is that Maliki showed himself to be a master negotiator. He used leaks to the press to his advantage (both the Iraqi press and the American press), he used Bush's single-mindedness against him, and he wound up negotiating circles around Bush. America supposedly handed over "full sovereignty" to the Iraqis a long time ago. We haven't ever taken this seriously. But Maliki did. And he used his country's sovereignty to dictate his terms to George Bush.

Meaning, also, that Maliki did what everyone has been begging for all along -- the Iraqis "stood up" and have forced America to "stand down." And, within the first six months, this is going to radically change the course of the American presence in Iraq. And it is going to radically change Iraq's future as well. Which is a pretty good outcome, all things considered.


-- Chris Weigant


5 Comments on “A Close Look At The Iraq Status Of Forces Agreement [Part 2]”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    I find it deliciously ironic that the rule of law has been restored by the country Bush destroyed. When it comes to the Patriot Act, domestic spying, etc., maybe we should get Maliki's negotiating team to defend OUR constitution.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Osborne Ink -

    I find the heaviest irony in a few places where they use the phrase "any changes must be approved by both countries' constitutional procedures" or variations on that theme. The irony is that we're supposed to be "teaching them democracy" and yet they sent the agreement through a committee, through their Parliament, their Executive council, and (next year) they're actually going to let the citizens vote on it.

    In the US, Bush used the "L'etat, c'est moi" theory, signed it himself, and declared that it didn't need Congress' approval.

    In fact, the irony's getting so thick in here, it's almost time to break out the hip boots...


    Sorry for the lateness of the last two columns, I've been busy during the days dealing with contractors, so I've had to write later in the day. Tomorrow may also be a bit tardy, but after that point I'll be back to the usual schedule. Sorry for the disruption...


  3. [3] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Why am I picturing 2 chain-smoking, blue-haired Iraqi sisters between the age of 60-145 working at the Iraqi DMV?

    Indeed, you don't want to cross them.

  4. [4] 
    Michael Gass wrote:


    Great rundown on the "agreement". You've basically said, with the "black and white" print to back it, what most of us already knew.

    The thing about this agreement, however, is that it means our forces are going to become prisoners on our own bases in Iraq until they are withdrawn. No more roving patrols. No more scouring the cities or villages. No more doors being kicked in. The soldiers will simply sit on the bases waiting doing their tour until all of them get the "bug out" order.

    Because of this fact, look for rocket and mortar attacks against our bases to INCREASE until we leave since there won't be anymore roving patrols into the nearby towns.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    @Michael Gass

    This is exactly what happened as the British forces in Basra and the southern regions of Iraq withdrew.

    I have the distinct feeling that the various Iraqi factions have given up on the US - God knows, with good reason - and just want to settle this thing themselves. The only problem with that is the resulting all out civil war will be good for no one - Iraqis or Americans.

Comments for this article are closed.