On December 14 President Bush on his last trip to Iraq as leader of the United States met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to sign the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). As reported earlier, after the SOFA goes into affect on January 1, 2009, there will be a referendum on it in July of that year. That means the U.S. and Iraqi governments need to prove their sincerity in limiting the role of American forces in the country to the Iraqi public so that they will confirm it. Recent statements by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh and the U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno have already jeopardized this public diplomacy effort.
First, while on a trip to the United States, Maliki’s spokesman al-Dabbagh gave a speech at the Pentagon on December 11 where he said U.S. forces might stay in Iraq for ten years. That was obviously past the 2011 withdrawal date set by the SOFA. Dabbagh believed that the Iraqi forces would not be ready in the three years set by the agreement, and would therefore need a continued U.S. military presence. This was especially true of the Iraqi forces’ logistics, air force, and navy. The Prime Minister quickly rejected his own spokesman’s comments. That didn’t stop political parties that had questions about the agreement from jumping on Dabbagh’s statements as proof that neither side believes in sticking to the SOFA’s timelines.
A few days later on December 13, commander General Ray Odierno made a similar statement contradicting the SOFA. He told the press that U.S. troops would stay in Iraq’s cities as advisors past the summer 2009 deadline set by the SOFA. He said that would mean that U.S. forces would stay in most of the security stations that are now being turned over to the Iraqis. Part of the reason why General Odierno wanted to keep these soldiers in Iraq was to help secure the upcoming Iraqi elections.
Together, in the span of just three days, a major Iraqi official and the commander of U.S. forces might have threatened passage of the SOFA in the July referendum. That doesn’t mean what they said wasn’t true. Iraqi forces probably won’t be ready in just six months to fully patrol all of the country’s cities, nor be ready for full independence three years later either. As military analysts such as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies have often pointed out, the Iraqi armed forces and police still face major obstacles before they are truly capable of defending their country on their own. These limitations were probably known by the Iraqis and Americans who worked on the SOFA, but the agreement was as much a symbolic one about Iraq’s sovereignty as anything else. Maliki was especially satisfied with the conclusion of the negotiations because it boosted his nationalist standing. He can now claim that he set the date for the U.S. to leave Iraq before the provincial elections in 2009. Dabbagh’s and Odierno’s statements pierce this newly created façade, and may set an early tone with the Iraqi public who have given little credit to the U.S. for the improved security situation, and only went from a negative to a positive view of the SOFA after Maliki was able to get major concessions from the United States. If statements continue like those of Dabbagh and Odierno, they could turn Iraqis against the agreement once again, which would mean a no vote during the referendum.
Aswat al-Iraq, “Bush, Maliki sign SOFA,” 12/14/08
Baldor, Lolita, “Commander: Troops to stay in cities past deadline,” Associated Press, 12/13/08
Cordesman, Anthony, “How Soon Is Safe? Iraqi Force Development and Conditions-Based US Withdrawals,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 12/1/08
Iraq Centre For Research & Strategic Studies, “Public Opinion Survey in Iraq; The Security & Political Situation in Iraq,” October 2008
Reid, Robert, “US troops to stay in Iraqi cities after June,” Boston Globe, 12/13/08
Reuters, “Iraq may need U.S. troops for decade: Iraqi official,” 12/11/08
Al-Sabah, “Poll: 46% of Iraqis Support Security Agreement,” 11/23/08