Iraq’s cabinet approved a security pact to keep U.S. troops in the country another three years. The agreement goes now to the parliament, where it seems likely to win approval.
The United Nations mandate under which American troops were operating lapses at the end of the year. If we hadn’t reached an agreement with the Iraqis, our troops no longer would have been able to operate in the country. The negotiations were long, complex, and highly controversial within Iraq. That they were successfully concluded is a blow to the schemers in Iran — and to their cat’s-paw, Moqtada al-Sadr — who did all they could to torpedo the pact.
The Iranians ran a substantial propaganda campaign in Iraq against the agreement beginning in May of this year. They lobbied Iraqi politicians and offered them bribes. The Iranians don’t like having us at their doorstep and don’t like the version of Iraq — an ally of the United States — that our continued presence implies. Iran’s implicit threat to Maliki was that his government would fall if he supported the agreement.
That Maliki has defied Iran is another sign of his growing confidence following successful operations to clear Sadr’s Mahdi Army out of Basra and Sadr City. Sadr had launched protests against the agreement with the goal of ending the U.S. “occupation” of Iraq. The pact demonstrates again his waning power. Grand Aytollah al-Sistani blessed the agreement, pointedly siding with the elected Iraqi government.
Maliki drove a tough bargain with us, and the agreement is far from ideal. We protected our troops from falling under the jurisdiction of Iraqi law, but we didn’t protect contractors. And we gave in to two ill-advised hard deadlines.
U.S. troops are scheduled to cease combat operations in Iraqi cities by June 2009. This kind of deadline is unwelcome, since conditions can change, but at the moment it looks as though it may be practical. We are only conducting major combat operations in Mosul right now, and central Iraq is mostly quiet, so we have already effectively been shifting to peacekeeping operations.
The agreement also calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, another unconditional deadline. But there’s nothing keeping a future Iraqi government from negotiating a new pact with the U.S. that is less categorical.
Declining levels of violence are going to tempt both American and Iraqi politicians to opt for a too-rapid deadline. They should be looking around the corner to elections next year that could occasion more violence. First, there are the provincial elections in January, which will be very contentious in Ninewa province, where the Kurds and Sunnis are jockeying for control, and in Basra, where various Shia factions are at daggers drawn. Then, there are national elections, probably in the fall of 2009. It is extremely important that these elections succeed and our troops remain Iraq’s most capable and neutral arbiter.
We hope Barack Obama pays heed. He has been handed an extraordinary opportunity. Few would have thought when President Bush ordered the surge two years ago that there would have been such extensive security gains and that a sovereign Iraqi government — albeit flawed and fragile — would be in a position to begin taking control of its own destiny. Obama will have the chance to preside over a successful endgame in Iraq. This is the gift the surge has given him, if he doesn’t throw it away.