As Iraqi legislators prepare to vote this weekend on a proposed agreement with Washington regarding the legal status of American troops in the country next year, one U.S. Congressman wants to know whether the plan will tie President-elect Barack Obama's hands.
Massachusetts Democrat Bill Delahunt's Foreign Affairs oversight subcommittee is set to take up the topic of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in a hearing next week that will feature at least four international legal experts.
Congressman Delahunt has long been on record opposing a new security agreement signed by President Bush so close to the end of his second term. "I think the wiser course, clearly, would have been to seek an extension of the [current] UN mandate," Delahunt told the Huffington Post. "I said this back when we didn't know who would be leading next administration. Now we know it's Obama. But we need to have a dialogue, and a thoughtful, reasoned approach to this whole concept of an agreement."
Delahunt cites the ongoing presidential transition in America as well as upcoming provincial elections in Iraq as good reasons to delay inking any long-term security deal. And indeed, Obama's election has scrambled political calculations among Iraq's political factions, with some Shiite parties appearing more willing to negotiate immediately after his election.
The announcement of January 31, 2009 as the date of long-delayed provincial elections in Iraq has also created the opportunity for parties outside Baghdad's ruling coalition to campaign against the deal with Washington -- despite the fact that Iraqi negotiators may have already obtained more significant concessions than they would receive from an extended UN mandate, were the SOFA deal to dissolve.
That irony was noted by an Iraq expert who advised Obama during the campaign. The scholar, who requested anonymity because of his ongoing advisory role to Obama's transition team, said "there's all sorts of things in [the negotiated] SOFA that put restrictions on unilateral American operations, the ability of U.S. forces to detain Iraqis for security reasons, and other things that Iraqis see as intrusions on their sovereignty. ... A lot of the specific things [Iraqis] find problematic right now would be worse under a simple extension of the UN mandate."
"I think that in their private moments, most Iraqi politicians realize that. Publicly, they're just nervous about expressing it," the Iraq expert said. "The biggest concern is within the Shia community. The Sadrists are very much against the deal. But now [Nouri al-Maliki's] DAWA party is competing with other Shiite parties for votes. The leaders in all parties are leery of getting too far out in front, in terms of supporting the agreement, because if it agreement fails, their rivals could benefit [at the polls]. ... What will be interesting, because this [election] does come pretty close to the transition of administrations, is the question of agreeing to the SOFA or a renewal of the UN mandate. That's the real wild card."
For Delahunt, that wild card is reason enough to delay any security agreement with Iraq until the next president takes office -- and perhaps after Iraq's provincial elections, as well.
"Too much is up in the air on both sides," Delahunt said, adding that an extended UN mandate would be easy to secure, despite past rumors that Russia would oppose it. "I met with Russia's ambassador to the UN, and he told me Russia is not going to oppose [it] if it's something the Iraqi government requests."
For his part, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-CA) tells the Huffington Post that while he doesn't necessarily agree with Delahunt that the UN mandate is the best way to go, it may well become a necessity if time runs out. "I certainly support what the Bush administration is trying to do in securing immunity for American soldiers," the California Democrat told the Huffington Post. "Given the pushback from Iraqis on that, I wonder whether or not it doesn't make sense to have a six month extension of the UN mandate, past those provincial elections, and the transition of administrations here."
Additionally, Berman said that if the revised security agreement binds the executive branch in any serious way past January 20, 2009, it should be presented to Congress. "If there's a provision in there that requires some kind of commitment by the U.S. to Iraqis past Jan. 20, or that limits the next administration's flexibility, it should come to Congress. And on the immunities issue, I would like to know and hear directly form the top military guys on the Joint Chiefs' staff, that they are comfortable the agreement protects our uniformed personnel. I think they very much have to make that showing to us."
Berman said he has been in occasional touch with the Obama transition team on these matters. But he has kept a degree of distance for now, in order to let the full operation get up to speed. "Right now, they're making sure they get the best people into key positions ... and I think it's very important that they move quickly. In all fairness, I have sort of purposely tried to give them some time. Though it's about time for me to get a little more directly engaged with them about this."