American troops in Iraq would be confined to their bases and private security guards subject to local law if Iraq gets its way in negotiations with the US over the future status of American forces.
According to a senior Iraqi official, the negotiations between the two allies became so fraught recently that President Bush intervened personally to defuse the situation. On Thursday he telephoned Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, to assure him that Washington was not seeking to undermine Iraq’s sovereignty and that America would reconsider any contentious part of the agreement.
The current United Nations mandate for US troops expires at the end of this year and Washington wants to conclude a bilateral agreement with Baghdad for the future deployment of US forces. There are just over 150,000 US troops in Iraq living on scores of bases across the country, from little 30-men outposts to sprawling camps often built around old Iraqi army barracks.
Construction work over the past five years has turned these bases into small towns of trailers, hangars and blast walls, equipped with a Pizza Hut, Starbucks-style coffee shops, cinemas and swimming pools.
Among a litany of sticking-points surrounding the status of forces agreement (SOFA) between the two countries are Iraqi concerns over how many US bases will remain in the country and who will be in control of Iraqi air space.
Other flashpoints include whether private security companies working for US forces will continue to enjoy immunity from Iraqi law and whether US soldiers will maintain the freedom to travel where they want, arrest people and conduct raids without first gaining approval from the Iraqi Government.
Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, said that under the new deal US soldiers should be confined to the larger bases. “We do need the Americans to leave the cities and the streets,” he said. “They have to be there in the back and . . . in their camps. Whenever we ask them they will be ready to support and help.”
As for private security companies, “they should be subject to Iraqi law”, Mr al-Dabbagh said. The immunity of such firms that work for the military or the British or American embassies triggered outrage last year after security guards employed by Blackwater, the largest private security company in Iraq, were involved in a confrontation that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.
A status of forces agreement takes on average more than a year to conclude, but Washington hopes to seal the deal with Iraq by the end of July — a time-frame that the Iraqi side views with less importance than the content of the accord.
Sanctioning the continuing presence of US troops is hugely sensitive, with many Iraqis opposed to such a move. Iran has also voiced concern that the deal will enable Washington to use Iraq as a launch pad to conduct attacks in the region. Mr al-Maliki used a weekend trip to Tehran to try to calm the tensions. “We will not allow Iraq to become a platform for harming the security of Iran and [other] neighbours,” he said.
The Iraqi Prime Minister will need to tread carefully to win the backing of his parliament for the pact and also ensure that the US side is satisfied.
Britain, which will have to sign its own bilateral accord with Iraq to legalise the presence of British troops in the country post2008, is watching the discussions with interest. London will use the US-Iraq arrangements for its own agreement.
The senior Iraqi official, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the chief concern is that Iraq’s sovereignty is protected.
“President [Bush] has been in touch with the Prime Minister of Iraq and has said that the issues which are rejected or not approved by the Government of Iraq will be reconsidered and the future American presence will be for assisting and coordinating with the Iraqi Government,” he told The Times about the conversation, which took place last Thursday.
A senior US official in Baghdad said that such conferences between the two leaders were fairly frequent. “[Mr Bush] has assured Prime Minister al-Maliki consistently we respect Iraq’s sovereignty. The content, the positions we take in the negotiations, will reflect that,” the official said.
US diplomats have been meeting their Iraqi counterparts for the past two months to draw up the status of forces document as well as a strategic framework, which sketches out every aspect of the two countries’ relationship from security, politics and the economy to culture, science and education.
As part of the process, several Iraqi delegates are due to return this week from a fact-finding trip to some of more than 80 countries, including Japan, Turkey and Singapore, with which the United States already has a status of forces accord.
The Iraq-US pact, while based on the same principles of two sovereign nations, will differ slightly because of the need for US forces to be able to fight.
“The general premise though is that they operate in a manner which reflects respect for, acknowledgement of Iraqi sovereignty and ultimately an Iraqi decision,” the US official said.