Forgotten in the rounds of self-congratulation following President Barack Obama’s presentation of his timetable for withdrawal from Iraq that was delivered last Friday was that the United States is already committed to a different timetable on which the Iraqi people will have the final say. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed during November 2008 between America and Iraq, was only ratified by the Iraqi parliament after a clause allowing for a national referendum on the document was included.
This referendum is supposed to take place by July 30 of this year. By that time, all U.S. forces would be garrisoned outside of heavily inhabited areas, however, that will not be the benchmark by which SOFA will be judged by the Iraqi public, who may judge the agreement solely by the odiousness of having foreign troops on their soil. Parliament has yet to specify whether SOFA would have to pass by a simple or two thirds majority. Even if same rules by which the Iraqi constitution was put to a referendum in October 2005—that a rejection by a two thirds majority in any three provinces would sink the proposition—are not applied this time around, which would make SOFA more vulnerable especially in the Sunni provinces, there is still a high likelihood that it will not even pass the fifty percent threshold.
In case it fails to pass the popular referendum, then the agreement expires within one year according to the mechanism laid out in Article 30, making it next to impossible to negotiate a new agreement giving the Americans an extension. This effectively means that a rejection of SOFA would set an earlier deadline for a full troop withdrawal by the summer of 2010 involving all U.S. and coalition troops, not just combat divisions, which means that Obama’s plan for keeping a residual force of 30,000-50,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq until the end of 2011, a trajectory already envisioned by SOFA, will fly out the window too.
When this possibility is put forward to those who work on Iraq in Washington DC, the common reaction one gets is “Do you really think they will hold a referendum?” or “It’s possible that the referendum will keep getting delayed, or it gets coupled with the next round of parliamentary elections, whenever those are scheduled.”
This is simply a case of wishful thinking and willful ignorance of what’s going on in Iraq. Not a single politician, not even one with abundant reserves of popularity such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, can afford to backtrack on the referendum. Canceling or delaying the referendum would expose such a politician to accusations of subverting the will of the people to keep foreign troops on the nation’s soil, or treason as some may expediently call it—the veritable kiss of death in most political cultures.
No one will take that risk, especially with parliamentary elections coming up.
Some blame should be assigned for the Bush administration that negotiated SOFA in a deflated and despairing manner without insisting on permanent bases in Iraq, a common-sense strategic demand given all the treasure and lives expended securing this foothold. U.S. interests in the Middle East will not be served by this exit but it is too late for recriminations now. American eagerness at leaving without securing a long-term strategic partnership with Iraq is thus mirrored by an Iraqi eagerness to see the Americans leave sooner rather than later. It is akin to a relationship involving a commitment-phobic person whose significant other has decided to move on.
Consequently, Obama can give speeches to his heart’s desire but he’s not in charge of this particular policy, a policy agreed to by his predecessor in office and now wholly up to the Iraqi voter to decide on.