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Iraq, U.S. Deadlocked Over Long-term Security Deal

June 13, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Iraq and the United States are negotiating terms for a continued U.S. presence there once a U.N. mandate expires at the end of 2008, but quarrels over troop levels have led to an impasse. A reporter outlines the ongoing negotiations, which have become contentious.
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JEFFREY BROWN: “Status-of-forces.” It doesn’t sound very dramatic, but it’s the name for an agreement now being negotiated that would provide a legal basis for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after December 31st, when the current United Nations mandate expires.

Today, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki said the talks are at an impasse because, quote, “the American version of the agreement infringes hugely on the sovereignty of Iraq, and this is something that we cannot ever accept.”

Among the key points of contention: whether U.S. forces can conduct operations without the permission of the Iraqis; the extent to which U.S. forces and private contractors are subject to Iraqi law; and how many bases the U.S. can maintain in Iraq and for how long.

Trudy Rubin is foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and has been following this story, and she joins us now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Trudy, first, explain why this status-of-forces agreement is needed in the first place. What is it intended to do for the future?

TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: The reason is that there has to be some legal basis for Iraqi troops to — sorry, for U.S. troops to be in Iraq.

Up until now, it has been a U.N. mandate, but that implies less than full sovereignty, because it allows U.S. troops to be virtually in control of everything they do. The Iraqis want a bilateral arrangement, like the U.S. has with 80 other countries, so they can be a normal country again.

Disputing bases and Blackwater

Trudy Rubin
Philadelphia Inquirer
Areas of real contention are the number of bases, who has control over U.S. troops, their immunity, the immunity of contractors, and whether U.S. troops can act without consulting the Iraqis.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there's a lot of public talk today, but the actual negotiations are going on behind closed doors. What does your reporting tell you about where the specific or biggest areas of contention are?

TRUDY RUBIN: There are several major areas of contention, and there's already a second draft out there. Maliki had said -- the prime minister had said that the first draft was unsatisfactory.

Areas of real contention are the number of bases, who has control over U.S. troops, their immunity, the immunity of contractors, and whether U.S. troops can act without consulting the Iraqis, whether they can do military operations and arrest Iraqis, independent of Iraqi control.

JEFFREY BROWN: How strong is the Iraqi push to win greater control over U.S. military operations?

TRUDY RUBIN: Well, the irony here is that the very success of the Petraeus-Crocker strategy, which has increased security, has given the Iraqis more self-confidence.

Prime Minister Maliki got a big boost from the operations in Basra. In reality, the Americans rescued him. It might have been a debacle, but he is more popular now.

And he is responding to force of nationalism in the country, who feel, now that things are better, that they want more control. And some people think they can do without U.S. troops. And he also has to bring this before parliament, and he needs to get a two-thirds vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I assume that this legal immunity issue, especially for private contractors, goes back to that -- especially to that 2007 Blackwater incident, right?

TRUDY RUBIN: Absolutely. And I am told by U.S. officials that that is one where they are going to give on and that contractors will probably not have legal immunity.

Both sides want to be in control

Trudy Rubin
Philadelphia Inquirer
[W]hat the Iraqis want to know is that they are really going to be in charge, as much as possible, of what happens in their country and that the Americans have no intention to stay on indefinitely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Prime Minister Maliki did talk about this in broad terms about sovereignty. From the Iraqi side, in general principles, what are they saying is most important about reaching an agreement?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think for the Iraqis what they want is to fully understand how the United States looks at the relationship. There's also a broader strategic framework involved.

The U.S. had a lot of civilian control over Iraqi ministries, although not what it had before under the Coalition Provisional Authority. And what the Iraqis want to know is that they are really going to be in charge, as much as possible, of what happens in their country and that the Americans have no intention to stay on indefinitely.

What the Iraqis would also like is a situation where the Americans pull back to bases and they undertake the operations to police their own country. Of course, the issue is, are they capable yet? But that's what the public is looking to, especially as the violence is dying down.

JEFFREY BROWN: And from the U.S. side, what are they saying is the most important thing, in general principles, again, in terms of clarifying the future relationship?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think for the United States, our main issue is being in control of operations, although there's some recognition that there might have to be a joint operations command.

But the U.S. military hates to be in a position where they want to undertake a mission and they have to ask permission for it. However, I think that's the direction in which things are moving.

There also will be immunity for U.S. soldiers. That is present in most SOFAs. After all, in 80 countries, we have them.

But I think the main issue here is this is the Middle East. And long-running military presence of foreign forces brings back memories of colonial occupation, in the case of Iraq, the British.

There was a treaty with the British in 1930 that left Iraq less than fully sovereign. It's being raised now as a precedent and something the Iraqis want to avoid.

And I think the main issue here is that this is a Middle Eastern country. And they want to be sure it isn't an agreement that looks somehow as if the United States is going to be controlling Iraqi policy, foreign policy, and the situation on the ground for the indefinite future.

Internal politics a major factor

Trudy Rubin
Philadelphia Inquirer
[M]any of the Iraqi political leaders want some U.S. presence, but there has to be a public vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Trudy, we just have a minute, but it is also true, of course, that there are debates within each country about this. Here in the U.S., of course, we're in the midst of a presidential campaign and Democrats have spoken out about worrying that we not have a -- or fix ourselves into a long-term commitment.

TRUDY RUBIN: That's true. And I think that means that transparency is a critical issue.

In private, many of the Iraqi political leaders want some U.S. presence, but there has to be a public vote. And, therefore, the provisions have to be public. And if they're going to be public in Iraq, I think the American Congress can demand no less. And certainly, they will be leaked from Iraq, unless the administration also makes them public.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, thanks very much.

TRUDY RUBIN: You're very welcome.