With U.S. media oxygen consumed by the Hillary-Barack contretemps, few have paid much attention to a brewing drama in Iraq.
At issue is an update to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, a document that legally defines the terms under which American troops can function in Iraq. The deal is being negotiated in secret, but a few preliminary details have leaked out. Patrick Cockburn of the Independent reports:
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.
Obviously, these terms could change in the face of Iraqi opposition, and there is already talk of political workarounds such as making the bases officially Iraqi bases with U.S. tenants. Iraqi officials have also threatened to make other arrangements if their sovereignty isn't fully respected. An Iraqi lawmaker testifying on Capitol Hill yesterday urged the United States "not to embarrass the Iraqi government (by) putting it in a difficult situation with this agreement" right now. The Bush administration doesn't believe that Congress needs to approve any deal, however, maintaining that the SOFA is not a formal treaty.
Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was especially harsh in his criticism, telling fellow Muslim leaders at a conference in Riyadh, "The essence of this agreement is to turn the Iraqis into slaves before the Americans, if it is sealed."
Former Iraqi Finance Minister Ali Allawi offers a more measured assessent, but nonetheless condemns the secrecy surrounding the agreement:
A treaty of such singular significance to Iraq cannot be rammed through with less than a few weeks of debate. Otherwise, the proposed strategic alliance will most certainly be a divisive element in Iraqi politics. It will have the same disastrous effect as the treaty with Britain nearly eighty years ago.
The security situation is looking up these days. But a flawed agreement could be the spark that brings all the gains of the past year crashing down.
UPDATE: U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker flatly denies the Cockburn story.