IRIS LUDEKER, Trouw (Holland): Do you think this SOFA means the end of the American military presence in Iraq by 2012?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: I do not believe the U.S. will ultimately be bound by this agreement if the Obama administration continues its intention of leaving perhaps half the current troop deployment — as many as 50-80,000 troops — in Iraq for an indefinite time after the “withdrawal.” IF (and this is a big “if”) the U.S. actually agrees to the December 31, 2011 withdrawal of “all U.S. forces” as the current draft states, this could be a way for Obama to implement his 16-month withdrawal of “combat troops” while still moving to withdraw “all U.S. forces” by the end of 2011. This would only happen if there is sufficient U.S. domestic as well as international political pressure on the U.S. to make good on that commitment.
IRIS LUDEKER: Is there any room to keep some troops in the country?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: The broader question of keeping some troops in Iraq after Dec. 31, 2011 has to be answered in the context of the history of U.S. violations of other countries’ sovereign territory, airspace, etc. In the current situation, this is most evident in Pakistan – where the U.S. has been routinely attacking alleged Taliban or al Qaeda supporters with both air and ground troops in Pakistani territory despite the opposition of the Pakistani government which is nominally allied to the U.S.
In terms of the current text of the SOFA itself, the text calls for U.S. taking “appropriate measures that include diplomatic, economic, military or any other measure” needed to deter any threat, internal or external, to the political stability or the current government of Iraq – “according to what they [Iraq and the U.S.] will agree on between them.” There is no time limit here for extending the U.S. military measures beyond the 3-year end of the agreement.
There is also language permitting amendments if both sides agree (article 30). Article 28 also refers to the Iraqi government requesting “limited, temporary” U.S. military help in securing the Green Zone; there is no time limit spelled out of how long that request might be for.
IRIS LUDEKER: According to reports in The Independent earlier this year, the U.S. government initially tried to keep dozens of permanent bases in Iraq. Do you think this report was outright wrong, or did the U.S. administration retrace its steps? If so, why?
PHYLLIS BENNIS: There is no question that the U.S. has wanted to maintain permanent bases in Iraq. I do not believe they are prepared to hand them over to Iraq despite the language in the agreement. I think the formal resolution may be through some sort of officially “bilateral” agreement between Washington and Baghdad allowing for the U.S. to “rent” or “lease” or “borrow” the bases from an allegedly “sovereign” government in Iraq on a long-term basis, arranged during the 3-year term of this agreement.
IRIS LUDEKER: How important, do you think, was the influence of Tehran in those negotiations? (I’m thinking especially about the clause that says Iraqi soil cannot be used for an attack on neighboring countries. This clause was not in an earlier draft of the agreement in October)
PHYLLIS BENNIS: The SOFA’s prohibition against the U.S. using Iraq to attack neighboring countries is very significant — perhaps the most important Iraqi “win” in the negotiations over the text. This was needed not only for Tehran directly, but because one of the very few points of agreement across Iraq’s political and civil society divides is the agreement that Iraq can only be harmed if it becomes known as a base for U.S. attacks on Iran, Syria or elsewhere. However — again the history of U.S. respect for sovereignty is very suspect here, and we should not assume that the U.S. does not intend to abide by this prohibition; it may just intend to be more secretive, while still carrying out the kinds of covert surveillance and other operations already reported to be underway by U.S. Special Forces in Iran.
Further, the Iraqi government remains qualitatively dependent on the U.S.; it is not impossible that a secret codicil was agreed to already by Maliki’s government, allowing covert U.S. attacks from Iraq as long as they are not made public in such a way as to embarrass Baghdad.
The one significant result of this language may be regarding Israel. If Iraqi airspace is officially not under Iraqi, and not U.S. control, it will be much more difficult for Israel to carry out a unilateral strike against Iran. While Washington might under certain circumstances be prepared to accede to an Israeli demand for access to Iraqi airspace for bombers and refueling planes en route to Iran, no Iraqi government, however dependent on U.S. support, is likely to agree to such an arrangement as it would lead to a huge escalation in the Iraqi resistance, and the likely overthrow of any such government.
This interview served as a basis for the article “Akkoord Irak-VS niet waterdicht: ‘Geen garantie voor complete terugtrekking v?eind 201,'” published by the Dutch newspaper Trouw on 25 November 2008.