A Critical Stage in Iraq

By David Ignatius (THE WASHINGTON POST, 22/10/08):

Iraq hasn’t gotten much attention recently in the American presidential campaign, thanks to the reduction in violence there, but U.S. policymakers are increasingly worried about what’s ahead.

The negotiations to complete a new status-of-forces agreement for U.S. troops are deadlocked. With a Dec. 31 deadline approaching, Baghdad and Washington seem to be running out of bargaining room. The Iraqis are determined to assert their sovereignty through legal jurisdiction over U.S. forces, while American officials are demanding broad protections from Iraqi law until U.S. troops are gone in 2011.

U.S. officials are warning that if the talks remain stalled, there isn’t an easy Plan B, such as a new U.N. Security Council resolution to replace the one that expires at year’s end and now provides the legal mandate for American troops.

“I’ve tried to make clear the consequences of not getting a SOFA agreement,” Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told me in a telephone interview yesterday. “The Iraqis should be under no illusion that a rollover of the U.N. resolution would be an easy option.” He said the United States would refuse anything but a clean, one-year extension of the current U.N. mandate — meaning that the Iraqis would lose the gains they have won in the new status-of-forces agreement.

Crocker said he has advised the Iraqis that without some formal mandate, U.S. troops will return to their bases Jan. 1. “Without legal authority to operate, we do not operate,” he said. “That means no security operations, no logistics, no training, no support for Iraqis on the borders, no nothing.”

Iraq has been regarded as such a success story in recent months that many have forgotten that all the old cleavages still exist — Sunni vs. Shiite, Kurd vs. Arab, regional autonomy vs. central government. With growing uncertainty about the future of U.S. forces in the country, these tensions are returning with a vengeance.

Mistrust between Kurds and Arabs almost led to a military confrontation in the Khanaqin area northeast of Baghdad in August. The Kurds had moved their pesh merga militia into the mixed Kurdish-Arab area, prompting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to deploy Iraqi army troops and order the Kurdish forces to leave. Crocker admonished both sides not to make stupid miscalculations, and U.S. commanders warned that they wouldn’t come to Maliki’s rescue. The overmatched Iraqi army retreated, but the crisis left bitter feelings on all sides.

“The Kurds still see things as a zero-sum game, as does everyone else,” grumbles another senior U.S. official who has been deeply involved in the negotiations. Jockeying among the Shiite parties has been especially intense, he says, with none of the Shiite leaders wanting the potential stigma of supporting the SOFA deal.

Iran is waging an aggressive covert-action campaign to derail the agreement, U.S. officials say. The new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, highlighted Tehran’s push last week when he said Iranian operatives had been seeking to bribe Iraqi members of parliament to reject the pact when it comes up for a vote.

This public allegation of Iranian meddling drew a rebuke from Maliki, but U.S. officials say they have recently intercepted Iranian couriers carrying suitcases of money to pay bribes and political subsidies to pro-Iranian parties. It isn’t clear whether the United States is mounting a covert effort of its own to counter the Iranian campaign.

The Iranians obviously want to limit U.S. influence in the new Iraq by defeating the status-of-forces agreement and in the process hand America a strategic defeat. But some top U.S. officials think the Iranians have a more fundamental goal in pushing U.S. forces out before the Iraqis are ready to take over — namely, bringing a final, decisive resolution to the Iraq-Iran war that ended in a 1988 truce. “Now, 20 years later, they have an opportunity to win that war,” the official argued.

“My one-word definition of Iraq is ‘fear,’ ” says Crocker. “Everybody is afraid of everybody. They’re afraid of the past, present and future. They’re afraid of the consequences of signing an agreement. But they should be even more afraid of the consequences of not signing.”

A final complicating factor in the deadlock is the expectation among many Iraqi politicians that Barack Obama will be elected president on Nov. 4, and that they’ll be able to get a better deal from him. If Obama does indeed win, he could make an early show of leadership by telling Baghdad not to expect any sweetheart concessions — and make clear that he backs the agreement Crocker is working so hard to pin down.