The Iraqi cabinet has approved the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States, in a vote that was surprisingly one-sided. 27 of 28 cabinet members voted in favor of the agreement, and the deal will now be sent to parliament for consideration. The vote became much easier after Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani indicated he would not object to the deal so long as parliament supported it.
The current, and evidently final draft of the SOFA came only after the Iraqi government requested over 100 amendments to the previous “final” draft. The US withheld its response until after its own elections, and accepted most, but not all, of the changes.
Vital to stifling opposition to the pact was removing a clause which explicitly allowed the Iraqi government to continue the US presence beyond the December 31, 2011 deadline for a pullout. The clause wasn’t particularly meaningful: the Iraqi government is still free to do this at any rate, but it was a major complaint of the opposition.
Another important addition was a clause which says “Iraqi land, sea and air shall not be used as a launching or transit point for attacks against other countries.” This was seen as particularly important after the US attack on a Syrian border town last month, but again leaves a measure of wiggle room: while the attack was into another country, the US might argue it wasn’t necessarily against them.
Still a potential obstacle is the US unwillingness to change a clause on troop immunity: the drafts both allow Iraqi courts jurisdiction over US troops who commit major crimes only if they are off-base and off-duty. The Iraqi government sought to amend this so Iraq could determine when off-base US soldiers are in fact off-duty. A concern with the present wording is that the US can essentially block Iraqi jurisdiction by simply declaring the soldier on-duty after the fact.
Having passed the cabinet, the SOFA moves on to parliament, and the requirements for passing there are a matter of some dispute. The government maintains only a simple majority is needed, while opponents argue for a two-thirds majority. The issue was contentious enough that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office said he wouldn’t submit the previous draft unless he was certain of a two-thirds majority.
And though the ruling Shi’ite coalition and strong supporters of the SOFA in the Kurdish Alliance would be sufficient for the simple majority, the two-thirds majority is by no means guaranteed, as the deal continues to have its opponents. The Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni religious group, has condemned the SOFA as a deal of “submission” to the US and warned it would continue a “despicable occupation.”
A spokesman for the political bloc of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has likewise been an outspoken opponent of the SOFA, called the cabinet vote “meaningless” and predicted the deal would fail in parliament. Sadr has been key in organizing popular opposition to the SOFA.