In December 2008, following gruelling debate over the US military presence in Iraq in the last days of the Bush administration, Washington and the Nouri Al Maliki government agreed on a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). According to this, US combat forces had to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and from the country by August 2010. It also entailed that “all US forces will be completely out of Iraq by December 31, 2011, subject to possible further negotiations which could delay withdrawal and a referendum scheduled for mid-2009 in Iraq which may require US forces to completely leave by the middle of 2010.”
Thus under SOFA provisions the US is obliged to withdraw all its forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. But the US withdrawal plans, which would start this summer, coincide with a Middle East that is a powder-keg ready to explode. The challenges include the security and political situation, the ongoing Arab revolutions, and an emboldened Iran meddling in Arab affairs, not the least in Iraq. A US withdrawal under the prevailing circumstances would weaken even further the fragile balance of power and will send the wrong message to Iran and the worried US allies in the GCC. A Cold War between the two sides of the Gulf is brewing as a result of Iran’s shenanigans and interference in GCC affairs, as was shown through the unearthing of spy cells in Kuwait which were being run by diplomats at the Iranian embassy, and Bahrain, with which Tehran had a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats.
Furthermore, the documented Iranian meddling in Bahrain’s uprising necessitated the intervention of the GCC’s Peninsula Shield forces to safeguard the country against a sectarian coup. That led to an unprecedented number of GCC foreign ministers’ meetings and statements calling Iran’s interference in GCC affairs ‘flagrant’ and its role in the region ‘ugly’. This kind of language has been used for the first time by the GCC states towards Iran.
The SOFA was not easy to come up with: it was signed despite Iranian objections, and insistence on not using Iraqi territory to launch any attack against Iraq’s neighbours, i.e. Iran. Some Iraqi political groups and the religious establishment rejected the agreement because it prolonged and legitimised US occupation of Iraq. Others saw the agreement as an infringement of Iraq’s sovereignty. And there were those who doubted the US would honour the agreement and leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
As Wikipedia has shown, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani expressed concerns with the ratified version. Some other Iraqis expressed scepticism that the US would completely end its presence by 2011. This, especially after the outgoing US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates argued that after 2011 he would expect to see ‘perhaps several tens of thousands of American troops’ as part of a residual force in Iraq. Some Americans have discussed ‘loopholes’ and some Iraqis have said they believe parts of the pact remain a ‘mystery’.
When SOFA was passed over two and -a-half years ago, it envisioned a different Iraq by 2011, and not a divided and fragmented one that existed when the agreement was signed. Iraq that would be able to overcome the tumultuous phase of sectarianism and become more united. But progress in Iraq was lacking, and Iran has become more threatening. A US withdrawal at this stage would not only reverse the gains made but would also make Iran the dominant regional conventional power and embolden it to dominate Iraq further and threaten the GCC states.
Change of heart
As Stratford, a private US intelligence think-tank opined in its annual forecast 2011, this “ripple effect alters the sense of security for the Saudis and other Arab regimes, forcing them to accommodate a more powerful Iran. This effectively ends the balance of power in the Gulf region, something that Washington can little accept... From geopolitical perspective, allowing Iran to dominate the region is unacceptable.”
It is important to remember that this analysis and warning was put forward in January 2011, before the Arab Spring and the Cold War-atmosphere between the GCC and Iran. Now, the US administration seems to have had a change of heart regarding its withdrawal plans as per SOFA provisions. Gates was on record since last February telling the US House of Representative Armed Services Committee that the Obama administration is interested in having more military personnel in Iraq after 2011. The remaining 47,000 US troops are to leave “unless the Iraqis ask the US to renegotiate that deal, the pullout will proceed”.
“There is certainly on our part an interest in having an additional presence,” Gates said. “And the truth of the matter is the Iraqis are going to have some problems that they are going to have to deal with if we are not there in some numbers.” He mentioned gaps in Iraq’s ability to protect its own airspace, to bring together its intelligence systems and to provide for its own logistics and maintenance of military equipment.
The US military seems to be warming up to keep anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 military personnel in Iraq beyond the SOFA deadline. In mid-April Gates insisted again that US troops might still remain in Iraq for ‘years to come’ and that it was possible that they could negotiate a ‘continuing advise-and-assist role’ that would keep American troops in Iraq forever. That is a game changer for everyone concerned. Admiral Mike Mullen, the US Chief of Staff, said, “Should the Iraqi government desire to discuss the potential for some US troops to stay, I am certain my government will welcome that dialogue. But it needs to start soon, very soon.”
The Iraqi government is in a bind, worried about Iran’s reaction, and the threat by Moqtada Al Sadr to reactivate his Mahdi Army if the US presence is extended. Having active bases in Iraq would allow the US to project power and influence, counter the threat from both Iran and Al Qaida, and possibly even nudge the entire Middle East into a more pro-Western direction. The Americans went first and showed their interest to extend their stay. Now, it is Iraq’s turn. There are many challenges and opportunities and interests at stake here. Stay tuned.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the Chairman of the Political Science Department — Kuwait University.