Saturday, October 25, 2008

US-Iraq Negotiations Come Down to the Wire

Negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement have reached a very difficult moment as time runs out quickly. Tension and an exchange of blunt statements and warnings have dominated the environment in the last few days. On the one hand, the Iraqi cabinet and many in the parliament rejected the final draft, demanding unspecified adjustments. On the other hand, the American administration largely rejected those demands and warned of the consequences of an Iraqi failure to ratify the agreement.

It appears that direct communications are not in their best shape, to the extent that the British commanders in Iraq are playing the moderator role between the Iraqi and American sides, according to state-owned Al-Sabah:
A parliamentary source said that Britain has become the moderator between Washington and the parliamentary powers. The source revealed that a meeting was held between Ali Adeeb of the UIA [United Iraqi Alliance] and the deputy commander of British forces, and lasted for an hour. This meeting was followed by another meeting [between the British commander] and members of the Accord Front and a third one with a number of other parliamentary powers.

Not all members of parliament share the cabinet’s rejection of the agreement. In fact some suggest that refusing to sign the agreement is tantamount to opening the door for coups. Al-Bayyna al-Jadida quoted three prominent Iraqi lawmakers speaking along these lines:
Chief of the Kurdistan Alliance Fouad Masoum said if the agreement is not signed by the end of the year, U.S. troops will be left without legal cover from the UN. This means they will not have to perform security-keeping operations. This justifies concerns about the possibility of a coup. … Chief of the Accord Front Adnan Duleimi also warned of a coup toppling the government. Meanwhile MP Iyad Jamal Ad-Din says that the departure of U.S. troops — or their presence with no operational significance if the agreement is not signed — exposes Iraq to security threats, top of which is a coup against the democratic system in the country.

In Tehran, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad again attacked the agreement and told the visiting president of Kurdistan Masoud Barazani that the agreement aims at keeping Iraq weak and helps the Americans steal Iraq’s riches. Barazani’s response didn’t come off as supportive of his host’s attack. He defended the agreement, saying it would make Iraq better off.

Meanwhile, a smoking gun was reportedly found regarding Iran’s alleged bribes to some Iraqi lawmakers. Mithal Aloosi, leader of the Iraqi Umma Party and whose immunity was removed over his recent visit to Israel, told Asharq al-Awsat that Iran’s ambassador Hassan Kadhimi Qomi offered him “millions of dollars and a top post in Iraq in exchange for cooperation.” Aloosi added that:
Qomi visited us at the party offices in Baghdad and said in front of everyone there that he wanted to support the party, then offered us an amount of money. The ambassador told us that “Iran supports a small organization like Shaheed al-Mihrab [belonging to Ammar Hakim, son of Abdul Aziz Hakim] with two million dollars a month. Imagine the support for a large party such as the Iraqi Umma,” implying they want to offer us more than two million.

Al-Sabah actually offers a clear and simple summary of the situation: “Whereas the UIA demanded revisions for a number of articles [of the draft agreement], the Accord Front called only for rewording the draft, and the Kurdistan Alliance gave approval for the draft.”

The paper also reports that Maliki and other political leaders will meet next week to identify the controversial articles and inform the American side of them in order to reach compromise on these issues.

There are reasons to keep expectations low about the outcome of such meetings. That’s particularly because the focus of rejection lies within the UIA, whose members are under severe pressure from the Shiite clergy. Until now, at least four prominent ayatollahs voiced fierce opposition to the agreement. Those are Ayatollahs Kadhum Ha’airi (in Iran, considered Sadr’s mentor), Mohammed Taqi Mudarrisi, al-Shirazi, and last but not least Mohammed Hussein Fadhlallah of Lebanon. The fatwa of the latter was indeed solicited by some Shiite lawmakers. He ruled that any agreement must include the immediate unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops — further complicating and regionalizing the situation.

That the door isn’t completely closed yet is the message Washington sent to Baghdad. It’s up to the Iraqi leaders to decide really soon whether or not they want to come out of the door with something good for them and the country, before it’s too late.

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