WASHINGTON - The threat by the George W. Bush administration last week to withdraw all economic and military support from the Iraqi government if it does not accept the U.S.-Iraq status of forces agreement has raised the stakes in the political-diplomatic struggle over the issue.
However, most Iraqi politicians are now so averse to any formal legitimisation of the U.S. military presence -- and particularly of extraterritorial legal rights over U.S. troops in the country -- that even that threat is unlikely to save the pact.
For most Iraqis the agreement is all too reminiscent of the unequal security agreement that gave military rights to British imperialism in Iraq from 1930 to 1958. The symbolism of foreign domination inherent in that historical parallel makes it risky for political party leaders and members of parliament to be seen as going along with any agreement that provides special privileges to the United States.
In a move reflecting a new sense of desperation that has overtaken U.S. officials, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, warned Iraqi officials that they would lose a total of 16 billion dollars in assistance for the economy and Iraqi security forces unless the agreement is approved by parliament, according to a story by McClatchy newspapers reporter Leil Fadel Sunday.
The threat was contained in a three-page document listing all of the forms of assistance that the United States would terminate if a U.S.-Iraqi agreement is not accepted, which was given to various top Iraqi officials last week, Fadel reported. USA Today reported that the list included "tens" of functions that the Bush administration is now threatening to halt if the pact is not approved by the parliament.
Many of the forms of U.S. assistance to Iraq which Washington says it would end, including training Iraqi security forces, patrolling Iraq's borders and waterways and providing air traffic control and air defence, could not be continued without a legal basis for the U.S. military presence.
Neither economic assistance nor arms sales, however, require any such agreement. Nor would the release of U.S. detainees, which is also reportedly on the list. The threat to halt that aid is an obvious bid to pressure the entire Iraqi political system to accept an agreement close to the one now on the table.
The U.S. move was apparently based on the premise that Iraqi officials and parliamentarians would be shocked by the sudden loss of so much that they had depended on. Iraqi Vice President Tariq al Hashimi was reported to have said Iraqi leaders had been taken by surprise by the move.
But in the current Iraqi political environment, the U.S. move appears to be strengthening Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's determination to reject the "final draft" agreement that the Bush administration believed had been agreed on earlier this month.
Maliki's cabinet agreed Tuesday to demand a series of changes in the draft, despite Bush administration warnings that it is not open to any major revisions. According to the Washington Post, cabinet ministers decided that the agreement must cede more legal authority over U.S. soldiers accused of crimes than is allowed in the current draft, which limits Iraqi jurisdiction to off-duty and off-base crimes.
That demand is certain to be rejected by Washington, which had already granted more authority to Iraqi courts than had been allowed in any previous U.S. status of forces agreement.
The Post reported that the Iraqi government also intended to make the 2011 date for complete withdrawal of U.S. troops even more ironclad than in the current draft, and to explicitly prohibit any attack on neighbouring countries from Iraqi bases. The latter demand was in response to the U.S. commando raid on Syrian territory launched from Iraq last weekend.
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One reason U.S. pressure tactics are not likely to be effective in forcing the Iraqi government and parliament to approve the existing draft is that the Bush administration is a lame duck, and Iraqis expect an Obama administration to be less aggressive in Iraq.
A senior Shiite parliamentarian, Ali al-Adeeb, who has reflected Maliki's views on the pact, said last week the prime minister is not intimidated by U.S. threats, because he believes he has the option of getting an extension of the U.N. mandate, and may hope to negotiate with a new administration next January.
Even more important in shaping the Iraqi political response, however, is the perception that the proposed agreement is the same type of unequal military relationship that Iraq had with the British for decades. With local elections coming up next year, Iraqi politicians are afraid to be viewed by the voters as supporting such a document.
Jalal al Din al Sagheer, deputy head of the Shiite Muslim Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq -- one of the political parties that is opposing the pact in the parliament -- explained to McClatchy newspapers last week that any Iraqi official who accepted the agreement "will be taken as an agent for the Americans".
Maliki and other Iraqi politicians remember very well the cost paid by politicians who fell afoul of Iraqi nationalists' efforts to revise the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi treaty, which gave the British special military privileges in Iraq that limited Iraq's independence.
When the Iraqi government revised the treaty in 1948 to extend it for 20 more years, it hoped to limit British military influence. The British agreed to evacuate the bases, but were given the right to return in the event of war. The revised treaty also set up a Joint Defence Board, which nationalist officers viewed as a symbol of continuing British domination.
The new agreement triggered mass protests in Baghdad, which was brutally put down by Iraqi police, killing 400 people. The first Shiite prime minister of Iraq, Salih Jaber, who renegotiated the agreement, was soon forced out of office.
In 1954, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, looking for allies against the Soviet Union, pressured Iraq to join the Baghdad Pact with Britain, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. The British government wanted Iraqi membership in the pact as a means of assuring British access to military bases in Iraq after the Anglo-Iraq pact expired in 1958.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said preferred to stay out of the pact, but he needed U.S. military assistance to rearm Iraq. In a parallel to the tactic now being applied, the Eisenhower administration said he would get no arms and even threatened to cut all existing economic assistance to Iraq unless Said joined the pact.
Said gave in to that pressure and joined the pact in 1955. But three years later, nationalist officers overthrew the monarchical regime of Iraq and killed Said.
According to Phebe Marr, a specialist on Iraqi history, Maliki's grandfather had been a cabinet minister, and Maliki himself is certainly familiar with the story of Prime Minister Jaber's negotiations with the British on the Anglo-Iraq Treaty. He also remembers Nuri Said's fate in 1958.
That history helps to explain why the issue of Iraqi jurisdiction over U.S. troops has taken on such extraordinary importance in Iraqi politics. A leading Shia cleric in the holy city of Najaf attacked the agreement for giving U.S. forces immunity from Iraqi jurisdiction in his Friday sermon on Oct. 17, declaring, "We consider this a basic point, because it represents sovereignty."