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In the SOFA Home-stretch

U.S. officials have not released the text of the Status of Forces agreement which the Iraqi parliament is due to vote on shortly. (A vote scheduled for today was postponed amid last minute wheeling and dealing.) But McClatchy Newspapers’ enterprising reporters have managed to dig up what they say is the official English translation. You can read the whole thing here.

The substantive contours of the agreement already have been reported, the highlight being the deadline for U.S. forces to leave Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and all of Iraq by December 31, 2011. An earlier draft included language making clear that these timelines could be adjusted upon the agreement of the two parties. The final version drops that explicit guarantee in a sop to Iraqi nationalists, but, no matter what the agreement says, the possibility of keeping U.S. forces in Iraq beyond 2011 remains as long as Baghdad asks for further assistance and Washington agrees to offer it. Such a continued role probably will remain important to foster the growth of the Iraqi Security Forces and to guarantee all sides that competing sectarian groups will not abuse them.

Many of the finer points of the agreement clearly have been finessed to assure Iraqis that their sovereignty is being respected while not overly restricting the vital role that U.S. forces continue to play. For instance, Article 9 says that “surveillance and control of Iraqi airspace shall transfer to Iraqi authority immediately upon entry into force of this Agreement.” But the very next line implicitly acknowledges Iraq’s incapacity to control its own airspace at present. It says: “Iraq may request from the United States Forces temporary support for the Iraqi authorities in the mission of surveillance and control of Iraqi air space.”

The level of detail is amusing at times. For instance, Article 17 says that Iraqi authorities will respect “valid driver’s licenses issued by United States authorities,” thus presumably relieving Humvee operators of the need to stop by the Iraqi Department of Motor Vehicles for a driving test.

The most potentially worrisome passages concern authority for U.S. forces to enter Iraqi homes and to detain Iraqi terrorist suspects. On both points the agreement offers a reasonable compromise. Article 22.4 outlines a procedure whereby the U.S. will provide the Iraqi authorities with a list of all detainees in American custody. The Iraqi authorities will then issue arrest warrants for all detainees wanted by them, and the U.S. will turn them over to Iraqi custody. What about potentially dangerous detainees-including thousands of hardcore Al Qaeda members-who remain a security threat but may not be prosecutable under Iraqi law? The agreement says the U.S. “shall release all the remaining detainees in a safe and orderly manner,” but-and here is the crucial line-it also adds “unless otherwise requested by the Government of Iraq” [italics mine]. That little clause may provide the authority necessary to keep holding a lot of dangerous terrorists at Camp Bucca and Camp Cropper, the U.S. detention facilities.

As for entering into Iraqi homes, Article 22.5 says this may not be done by U.S. forces “except by order of an Iraqi judicial warrant,” but this restriction is also softened by another clause: “except in the case of actual combat operations” [again, italics mine]. This takes at least some of the sting out of what could have been a fatal impediment to the effective operations of U.S. forces: American commanders presumably could argue that almost any actions taken in the line of duty constitute “combat operations.”

All in all, the agreement, while far from ideal, represents a decent chance to continue the U.S.-Iraqi security partnership which has in recent years dealt such devastating blows to terrorists of both Shiite and Sunni persuasion. Let us hope that the Iraqi parliament finally approves it.



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