The Iraqi parliament voted by an overwhelming show of hands yesterday to end US military control of their country – a crucial turning point in the Iraq conflict. The security agreement, the outcome of lengthy and rancorous negotiations, requires US forces to leave Iraqi cities, towns and villages by 30 June next year. American troops must withdraw from all Iraqi territory by 31 December 2011.
Until then, US forces will come under Iraqi supervision for the first time. Currently the US military can do what they like. In future, they will have to consult Iraqi officers before every operation and obtain Iraqi arrest warrants.
After difficult negotiations, the coalition government persuaded leaders of the Sunni Arabs, a fifth of all Iraqis, that they will not be at the mercy of the majority Shia community after the US forces have gone. The agreement was supported, after a brief debate, by the coalition's Shia and Kurdish supporters as well as the largest Sunni bloc.
The only opponents were 30 followers of the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who shouted protests and waved banners saying: "No, no to the agreement."
The international focus on the US presidential election and on the world financial crisis has drawn attention away from radical concessions made to the Iraqi government by President Bush in the past few months. Senator John McCain was still claiming victory in Iraq as American political influence in the country diminished by the day. As Mr McCain denounced Barack Obama's plan to withdraw combat troops over 16 months, Mr Bush was agreeing to a pact which was not radically different.
To win over Sunni doubters, the Iraqi government has agreed to hold a referendum on the pact next year after it is implemented. The Sunni leaders are also seeking guarantees for the safety of 17,000 Iraqis, three quarters of them Sunni, detained by the US military, who will be handed over to Iraqi authorities.
The Status of Forces Agreement, as it is officially known, marks a significant milestone in the Iraq conflict. When the US started negotiating the accord, which replaces the UN mandate for the occupation that runs out at the end of the year, Washington wanted to make the US military presence open ended. But the Iraqi government, taking an increasingly nationalistic attitude, demanded and obtained an unconditional timetable for the withdrawal of US forces.
The hand of the ruling Shia-Kurdish coalition, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has been strengthened by the fact that the Sunni uprising against the US occupation has largely ended. Mr Maliki was able to face down the Shia militia of Muqtada al-Sadr earlier this year through Iranian support. In control of increasingly powerful Iraqi security forces, the Shia leaders no longer believe they need US backing to survive.
To avoid claims that he is a US puppet, the Prime Minister is stressing the agreement is a plan for American withdrawal. Its title in Arabic is: "Agreement between the United States and the Republic of Iraq on the withdrawal of United States forces from Iraq".
The pro-Muqtada al-Sadr bloc in parliament wanted US forces to go immediately. They claim the agreement is a subtle way to prolong the occupation. The governing Shia parties toughened their line against the US because they were worried the Sadrist anti-occupation rhetoric would win votes in January's provincial elections.
Some senior American officials are reportedly dismayed at the extent of the concession made by President Bush. The agreement alters the balance of power between the US forces and the Iraqi government. Apart from the requirement to consult with Iraqi officers, the US will be forbidden to use Iraq as a base for attacks on other countries. This would rule out attacks like the recent helicopter commando raid into Syria.
A sticking point was the Iraqi demand for the right to prosecute US soldiers accused of crimes. The US gave ground on this, though it is unlikely they will be prosecuted since this can only happen if they are off duty and away from their bases. The Iraqis can prosecute US contractors, notably the private security companies detested by Iraqis. Iraq takes over responsibility for the Green Zone, the seat of power, from 1 January 2009.
Mr Maliki rejected early versions of the agreement for fear he would be called unpatriotic, and because he needed to satisfy the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the powerful Shia religious leader, that the deal was acceptable. He also required the support of the largest Shia party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and for Iran to ease its hostility to the agreement. A legacy of the British occupation is that Iraqis are deeply wary of agreements with an occupying power.
A landmark agreement: What it means
* The Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the US is a plan for the US withdrawal and the rules under which US forces would operate until final withdrawal in three years' time.
* The agreement is very specific about the dates for the US pullout. It says that all US combat forces are to pull out from cities, towns and villages "on a date no later than 30 June 2009". Most important of all it says that "all US forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water and airspace no later than 31 December 2011".
* The US side wanted to make the withdrawal timeline conditional on the development of Iraqi security forces, but the final agreement drops this.
* It will be impossible for US forces to arrest an Iraqi "unless it is in accordance with an Iraqi decision". US forces will not be able to search premises without "an Iraqi judicial order".
* Some senior Iraqi politicians say Iraqi forces may carry out searches and arrests with a sectarian agenda. Sunni in Baghdad are afraid of being arrested by chiefly Shia Interior Ministry troops and look to US forces to protect them.
* In a reversal of attitudes in the first four years after the occupation it is the Sunni Arabs who now frequently want US troops to stay and the Shia, formerly allied to the US, who want them to go. Fear of a return to Sunni-Shia sectarian warfare which led to mass slaughter in 2006-07 is slow to dissipate.
* US contractors lose their legal immunity. It is possible that Iraq might bring retroactive charges against contractors who killed Iraqis in past incidents. Despite wrangles about the immunity of US troops during the negotiations, it is unlikely they will be prosecuted. Other important concerns include the protection of Iraqi assets abroad, notably state funds in the Federal Bank of New York, from legal action.
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