Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sadr Takes Aim at New U.S.-Iraq Agreement

After the Iraqi cabinet voted in approval, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker met in Baghdad to sign the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).

Both diplomats hailed the event as a “historic” one — not an overstatement as their meeting was the fruit of many months of deliberations and negotiations.
Reportedly, SOFA has a sister document whose details are yet to be made public. Radio Sawa reported that Zebari and Crocker signed “another long-term strategic agreement, which the U.S. ambassador said would shape relations between the two countries in all areas for years to come.” It’s actually surprising that there’s no mention of this second document anywhere in the media.

After the cabinet approved the agreement, movement began immediately in the parliament to found coalitions among parliamentary groups that are in favor of the agreement and among those opposed to it as well.
A parliamentary source told al-Sabah that a number of parliamentary leaders started working yesterday to build consensus over the agreement. The source said the positions of parliamentary powers are not clear yet but also added that “there is inclination toward approval, especially that cabinet members from the major groups approved the agreement yesterday. Ratifying the agreement in the parliament will not be impossible but also might face great obstacles.”

Once the news broke, Moqtada Sadr responded in his usual way. He called the agreement “a disgrace” and called on the Iraqi parliament to reject it.

Sadr said in a statement that “here is disgrace and humiliation brought by the United Iraqi Alliance and some Iraqi parties.” He added, “the government signed the agreement with the occupier with the help of the [Shiite] Alliance and some Kurdish parties under the pretext of ending the occupation. Overthrowing occupation is a religious and patriotic duty supported by logic and [religious] texts. Therefore it requires no agreement with those who respect neither faith nor promises.”
In his message, Sadr stressed that he considers the agreement void even if ratified and asserted that the “faithful will not be bound by it.” He called on the parliament to reject it without the least hesitation so that “Iraq and its people do not get sold out the way other Muslim countries were.”
Sadr also announced the formation of the Promised Day Brigade from Sadr movement elements and other sympathetic armed groups in order to fight American forces.

Previously Sadr communicated through his spokesmen that there shall be no negotiations with the United States without a timetable for withdrawal on the table. This expected insistence on “resistance” exposes the way Sadr and other Arab “resisters” think and operate. They try to obstruct solutions and agreements even if they include what they have been demanding. This should be something to keep in mind for Western leaders who advocate unconditional talks with people like Sadr. There must be a clear distinction between parties one can negotiate with and parties with which negotiations are all but impossible.

There was one interesting part in Sadr’s message. He said he “extends his hand to the mujahideen in the so-called Assa’ib [عصائب أهل الحق] but not their leaderships who have been distracted by politics and mortal life from the [two late] Sadrs and the interests of Iraq and Iraqis.” The group Moqtada mentions is one that used to operate under the umbrella of his Mahdi Army. Video clips of their operations posted on the web often came as part of compilations of footage of operations by other Sadr-linked groups, namely the Imam Hussein Brigades and Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq.
This sentence shows beyond doubt that there’s actually a huge rift between Sadr and his lieutenants and that he made the decision to go public about it.
Sadr’s loyalists in the parliament pledged to obstruct the ratifying of the agreement. In fact they already tried yesterday to obstruct the first reading of the document but were stopped by speaker Mahmoud Mashhadani.

The parliament is on alert now to discuss and vote on the agreement. All leaves and out-of-town tours have been canceled to secure quorum for the sessions that will last through November 24, one day before the parliament goes on recess.
Meanwhile the presidential council ruled that the agreement should be approved by a “clear and comfortable majority” of the representatives of Iraqi constituencies — previous agreements were passed by simple majority vote.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, always the optimist when it comes to SOFA, expected the parliament to finish discussing the agreement and ratify it before the end of the month. That will be followed by a step of diplomatic formality where Prime Minister Maliki and President Bush will sign the document.

Of course our lovely neighbors in Syria and Iran were the first in the region to offer their own two cents. Syria did no more than reiterate worn-out slogans, as expected. The Syrian information minister said the agreement “rewards the American occupation” and added that “Iraqis should have demanded an apology from Washington for the destruction it caused in Iraq instead of passing this agreement!”
This suggests that Syrians are unaware of what their Iranian allies have been doing. The surprising Iranian position was announced by Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi. Shahroudi, who is close to Supreme Leader Khamenei, lauded the agreement and said the Iraqi government “did very well” by approving it.
It seems that this is a message to the next American administration: that Tehran is capable of steering some influential politicians in Iraq and that it has something to offer in exchange for American concession regarding — my guess — the nuclear program.

I think the fact that prominent Sadrist leader Hazim Aaraji said they were shocked by the developments reflects the complexity of Iran’s manipulation of Sadr and the SIIC by letting the latter agree on the deal while encouraging the former to oppose it — a miniature carrot-and-stick game. I doubt the Iranians are happy with the agreement per se; they are only happy with their self-proclaimed ability to play Iraqi Shiite parties against one another. I would even say that Iranians are doing exactly what diplomacy textbooks would instruct regarding presenting one’s own chips. What they didn’t understand of the textbooks, though, is that they also need to know how much the person across the table is interested in those chips. In fact, Iran is overlooking the fact that across the table sit more than America alone, when it comes to the nuclear question.

What the Iranians don’t understand is that their carrots and sticks are not big enough to change world opinion on their nuclear ambitions. There is a multitude of states that couldn’t care less about American success in Iraq but to whom Iran’s going nuclear is a red line — the nuclear issue is not a U.S.-Iran duel on Iraqi soil.

Anyway, I think the Iraqi decision to accept the deal was a result of the tough stance of the American administration. This actually surprised Iraqis who were used to a softer American tone. Moreover, many parties in Baghdad have matured to deal pragmatically and realistically with the issue of a strategic partnership with America — America is the best ally we could possibly have. Even though Iran holds a few strings, most of the strings now are in more capable Iraqi hands backed by the mighty United States of America.

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