Last week, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte described the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq as “close” and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said he was confident that the deal would be reached, citing ‘good concessions’ made by the US on certain key issues. But as is often the case in the rapidly changing environment of Iraqi politics, last week’s optimism has turned into this week’s pessimism.
With the current UN mandate set to expire on December 31, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi says it is unlikely that the SOFA can be completed and approved by then. So what happened over the last week to change things so dramatically? It may have something to do with Friday’s meeting between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the highly influential Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Though Sistani did support the idea of the government negotiating an agreement with the United States on a long-term presence, he insisted that the final agreement must be endorsed by parliament. A previously leaked draft suggested that Maliki would be able to bypass a time-consuming and contentious vote in Iraq’s parliament, but the political cost of doing so over the objections of the Ayatollah would likely be far too high to pay.
Which leaves US and Iraqi officials considering asking the United Nations Security Council to extend its mandate yet again. Without an extended mandate or the SOFA, US forces in Iraq would have no legal basis for a continued presence under international law. They would be confined to their bases until either an agreement was reached or they withdrew from the country entirely.
Iraq has left open the possibility to ask the UN to extend the mandate since the last extension was enacted, but it was expected that the US and Iraq would be able to reach a deal before a July deadline passed. Several stumbling blocks have emerged which have delayed the deal, and the question of US troop immunity is reportedly still an obstacle.
But getting the Security Council to extend the mandate is easier said than done. In particular, the public US condemnation of Russia over August’s brief war with Georgia may come back to haunt them. As a permanent UN Security Council member Russia could prevent the extended mandate, and as a long-time critic of the US campaign in Iraq they may not feel like doing the US any favors by giving them on easy out on the SOFA.