August 18, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 461

Reactions in the Iraqi Press to the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Agreement

August 18, 2008 | By D. Hazan*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 461


A long-term strategic agreement was scheduled to be signed in late July 2008 between the U.S. and Iraq, which was to grant judicial legitimization to a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, after the December 31, 2008 expiration of the U.N. mandate for stationing foreign troops there. Leaked information regarding the agreement sparked wide-scale protest in Iraq, mainly on the grounds that it would severely harm Iraqi sovereignty and perpetuate "occupation."

In light of such strong opposition, the Iraqi government rejected a number of amended versions of the agreement prepared by the U.S,[1] the signing of a long term agreement was removed from the agenda, and its place was taken by the prospect of a "memorandum of understanding" for the short term.

In the political arena, the agreement was intensely opposed by most elements in Iraqi politics, who were concerned that it would "deprive Iraq of its sovereignty" and demanded a definite timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal.[2] Senior Iraqi government officials called for significantly curtailing the role of U.S. forces in Iraq by the end of 2008. Encouraged by the success of recent operations by the Iraqi security apparatuses, they requested that unless Iraq asked for help, the U.S. would commit to restricting its forces to its military bases, saying that otherwise the agreement would not be signed, and Iraq would find alternative solutions. Thus, MP Sami Al-'Askari, who is affiliated with Al-Maliki, stated: "The Americans are raising demands that will transform Iraq into a colony. If we fail to come to a satisfactory agreement, many people will have to say to the American forces, 'Bye-bye! From now on, we don't need you here'... If negotiations fail, Iraq will have to extend the presence of U.N.-sponsored foreign forces by yet another year."[3]

Shi'ite religious scholar Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani voiced opposition to the agreement, arguing that "any agreement that harmed Iraq's sovereignty in any way was considered a violation of shari'a," and that "it would be inconceivable for foreign forces to stay in Iraq forever; they must leave Iraq, in light of the significantly improved security situation there." Another three Shi'ite scholars in Najaf also condemned the agreement, warning that the signing of it would constitute a violation of Islam and bring about a popular intifada.[4] 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (the largest Shi'ite group in the Al-Maliki government), also criticized the agreement, since it stipulated a continued presence of U.S. forces.[5]

Al-Sadr's faction, which had been championing the war against the occupation, called to draft a timetable for a withdrawal of the international corps from Iraq and to consult religious scholars before making a final decision regarding it.[6] Later, the faction called on Shi'ite religious scholars to issue fatwas prohibiting the signing of any agreement between the Iraqi government and the occupiers.[7]

On the other hand, an MP from the Kurdish coalition warned against a premature withdrawal from Iraq by the international corps from Iraq, contending that Iraqi security forces were not yet able to take full responsibility for the country's security. An MP from the Sunni Al-Tawafuq front said that while "it supported a withdrawal of the international corps, some of its elements believed that time was not ripe [for it]."[8]

As for Iran, when information about the U.S.-Iraq security cooperation agreement was first released, it expressed discontent. Senior Iranian cleric Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi claimed that by signing this agreement with the U.S., Iran would render itself "its eternal prisoner," and called on the Iraqi people to learn from the Lebanese, who had expelled the Americans from their land.[9]

On June 7, 2008, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki paid a three-day visit to Tehran, to assure the Iranians that the agreement with the U.S. would not be detrimental to Iran. During the visit, he stated that all influential political elements in Iraq supported rapprochement with Iran in all areas, and that Iraq would not allow its territory to be used as a base for attacks against Iran.[10] Iranian Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei demanded that Al-Maliki refrain from signing the agreement with the U.S., and contended that Iraq's main problem today was the U.S. presence. He expressed full confidence that the Iraqi people would get through this difficult period, restore Iraq's proper standing, and shatter America's dreams. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki informed Al-Maliki that Tehran opposed the signing of the strategic agreement unless Iran was promised that it would be part of a regional security apparatus.[11] Iranian Guardian Council chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati stated that if the Iraqi government signed the agreement with the U.S., it would be a "traitor."[12]

Whether or not they are influenced by Iran's position, Iraqi Shi'ite politicians seem categorically opposed to the agreement, while the Sunni and the Kurds reject it to a lesser degree, despite reservations regarding some of its clauses. Both positions were clearly manifested during Al-Maliki's visit to Jordan. Thus, Al-Maliki, who is a Shi'ite, stated that the negotiations on the agreement had reached a dead end, but Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zibari, a Kurd, hastened to interpose that he believed that "it was premature to assert that the agreement was dead or had reached a dead end."[13]

Haroun Muhammad, an Iraqi writer and journalist who resides in London, wrote in an article titled "Is It Time to Replace Nuri Al-Maliki?" which was published in Al-Quds Al-Arabi: "Since the beginning of negotiations on the [strategic] agreement [with the U.S.] at the end of April [2008], Al-Maliki has been trying to play a double game. [Thus, on the one hand,] he intimated to the Americans that he was not opposed to the agreement, since under the circumstances it was essential... but that some of the clauses required revision and rephrasing, especially those that humiliated Iraq by impinging on its sovereignty. At the same time, however, he announced to some elements in the Shi'ite coalition, particularly those who were known to have connections with Iran, that he would not sign the agreement 'even if it cost him his head,' as he put it... Al-Maliki is advocating the format of a memorandum of understanding rather than that of an agreement, although there is not much difference between the two, except that a memorandum can be signed outside the parliament or legislative authority, since this procedure is under the jurisdiction of the executive branch, – as opposed to an agreement, which must be legally ratified and presented before the parliament for endorsement."[14]

Columnists in the Iraqi and Arab press have voiced opinions both for and against the agreement. Its opponents claim that it would damage Iraq's sovereignty and warn of a permanent American presence in Iraq, and of a U.S. takeover of Iraqi resources. Its advocates warn that the Iraqi forces are not yet ready to replace the U.S. forces, and that the agreement could trigger civil war and precipitate an Iranian takeover of Iraq; they also contend that the agreement could benefit Iraq economically and enhance its deterrence capabilities vis-à-vis neighboring countries.

Following are excerpts from articles on the subject:

I. Opponents of the Agreement

The Agreement Will Place Iraq Under U.S. Mandate for Decades

On the website, Iraqi writer and researcher Salam 'Abbud sheds light on agreement clauses that could be problematic for Iraq, and warns against disregarding the opposition of a large part of the Iraqi people to the agreement: "As the date for the signing of the agreement drew near, the U.S. media began to leak some of its clauses, in order to gauge the responses of the Iraqi population... and to embarrass Iraqi politicians... [These are] the most important clauses that were publicized... and that are still making the government uneasy lest the public becomes aware of their import. [Firstly,] the clause related to the international pact against terrorism, as well as the tightening of cooperation as well as cultural, military, and security coordination among its members. [Indeed,] for the U.S., this is tantamount to cooperation with Israel, including normalization and implicit or explicit coordination with it, [since Israel] is its closest, most active, and most beloved ally in the war on terror. [Second,] the clause related to the freedom of arrests... under which the U.S. ambassador has the right to arrest the Iraqi prime minister at will... [Third,] tying the Iraqi budget to the U.S. central bank and the stipulation of direct [U.S.] monitoring of all [Iraqi] debts, export, revenues from oil, gas, and sulfur, and, most importantly, investments and contracts. [Fourth,] ensuring regional security – which according to the Americans means that Iraq's borders are the responsibility of the international community, and that U.S. forces are entitled to move on all fronts and to request help in the field from any foreign force that they wish to act under their command. This means the growth of many armies on Iraqi soil, and [Iraq's] becoming an international military focus...

"A large part of the people oppose the agreement; what is to be done about them? Should we expel them? Should we slaughter them? Should we call them all 'gangs,' 'terrorists,' and 'Al-Qaeda supporters,' and massacre them and bomb them from airplanes?"[15]

In the Syrian government daily Al-Thawra, Ali Suwaha pointed out that the agreement would damage Iraqi sovereignty and give many privileges to the U.S., saying that it would encourage it to permanently maintain forces in the region and also to maintain control of economic resources: "There is no doubt that the U.S.-Iraq security agreement is considered a blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty, and in fact it brings Iraq to a new stage of occupation and sets it under an American mandate for the coming decades... The most dangerous thing about this agreement, which the Bush administration is trying to force on the Iraqis, is that it gives exceptional immunity to the U.S. forces, along with freedom of movement, transport, and conveyance of arms and fighters, and [freedom] to arrest Iraqis. This certainly will be a unique American agreement, of all the 80 agreements that the U.S. has signed with other countries... [This agreement] abolishes the U.N. Security Council's authority to intervene... [and] gives the U.S. a military presence that is a pressure factor for the countries neighboring Iraq that Washington sees as hostile to its policy in the region, such as Syria and Iran.

"The sections of this agreement assure the U.S. of [the ability to] establish its grip on the lines of energy transport in the world, and to control them... Add to this the military bases that appear in the sections of the agreement, which will remain in Iraq even after U.S. forces withdraw from it; these strategic bases complete the U.S.'s strategic military line that begins in Western Europe and stretches eastward, through the Balkan basin, Afghanistan, and Turkey, to the Arab Gulf. This is in addition to support for Israel and its aggressive tendencies... The Iraqis, with their various political forces, now face an historic opportunity to act jointly and in a single front against American occupation forces remaining, and against the transformation of their land into the most dangerous military base in the region."[16]

The Iraqis Must Sign Only a Comprehensive Agreement that Includes a Timetable for a U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq

In an editorial, the UAE newspaper Al-Bayan expressed fear of a permanent American presence in Iraq, and called on Iraqis not to sign an agreement that did not include a timetable for an American withdrawal: "The creation of a link between [the U.S.] presence [in Iraq], an absolute improvement of the situation, and the agreement of the U.N. [to the U.S. presence] means in fact that Iraq must wait many years until [a U.S. exit] is realized... If we were completely convinced that the [Americans'] departure would come sooner or later, [so be it – however,] we are completely convinced that the Americans are planning to maintain a constant presence, not only by means of an embassy, but also by means of building military bases that will ensure their interests at the stage following the official end of the occupation... The Americans are talking of a staged withdrawal, not an absolute withdrawal... which hints at the possibility of a redeployment of American forces in Iraq...

"Therefore, the Iraqis must prevent [the actualization of] this covert goal, and must [only] sign a military agreement that includes a timetable for an American withdrawal from Iraq... and must refuse to give judicial legitimization to the occupation forces and to their security companies."[17]

II. Advocates of the Agreement

Iran Is Behind the Campaign of Opposition to the Agreement – And It Is Deep Within The Fabric Of Iraqi Life

Former Jordanian information minister Salah Al-Qallab wrote in the Kuwaiti paper Al-Jarida about the fear of civil war breaking out in Iraq and of an Iranian takeover: "Let us assume that the American forces pack their bags, close their bases, and depart within two weeks or two months. What then? Who will fill the vacuum thus created? First of all, the Iraqi army, in its present composition, and in light of its weak armament, is still not capable of controlling the situation as it is [today] in Iraq...

"Second, the sectarian and terrorist gangs... the so-called 'resistance,' will, immediately after the American pullout, will begin jockeying for control of the cities, villages, and neighborhoods, and will ignite the fire of civil war... which will continue for long years, and will necessarily spread to several states in the region, in light of the intervention [in Iraq's internal affairs] that [already] exists in the region, and in light of the existence of regional forces that have been waiting for this moment since the Americans began their occupation of Iraq in 2003.

"Thus, the only element capable of filling the vacuum that will necessarily be formed in the event of a withdrawal by American forces – after the Arab world turns its back... is Iran, which has a real and effective military presence ready for action, by means of the IRGC, the Faylaq Al-Quds, and the Mahdi Army militias, and also by means of [its] infiltration of the official Iraqi security forces.

"If the American forces are withdrawn without an agreement... Iran will initiate a takeover of Iraq – if not of all of it, then at least of its south and its center... Iran is behind the campaign of opposition to these agreements... [while] the [Iraqi] elements waging [this campaign] are innocent... or are small cogs in the machine of the 'rule of the jurisprudent.'"[18]

Ghassan Charbel, editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, likewise expressed concern about an Iranian takeover of Iraq, which would transform Iran into a regional power: "Nuri Al-Maliki's task is difficult and exhausting... He knows Tehran, and Tehran knows him, but the interests of the two countries are incompatible... Iran is not just a strong state bordering Iraq; it is part of the fabric of Iraqi life, into which it has deviously made inroads... Iran has a strong presence in Baghdad, Najaf, and Basra, as well as in the government and parliament, and possibly [even] in Al-Maliki's party itself. This means that [Iran] controls a third of the Iraqi 'domestic' [scene]... A continued U.S. presence in Iraq will set a boundary [limiting] the Iranian influence, or it will create a strong opposition to Iran's becoming a regional power. Iraq's fate is of concern not only to Iraq; it has a bearing on the security, stability, and resources of the [entire] region."[19]

Before Demanding a U.S. Withdrawal, We Must Cultivate True Nationalism in Our Hearts

In the Iraqi semi-official daily Al-Sabah, poet Hassan Al-'Ashur contends that Iraqi forces are not yet ready to fill the vacuum that a pullout of U.S. forces would create: "A withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq will create a vacuum that will have to be filled... Are Iraqi armed forces ready to fill [this] vacuum?... [Their] readiness can be assessed based on two factors. The first is nationalism... Have we succeeded in building an army with a strong [Iraqi] national ideology?... I believe that, unfortunately, an [Iraqi] soldier has so far absorbed from the elites a jumble of messages, [including those] of political parties, sects, [Arab] nationalism, and religion – with [Iraqi] nationalism possibly at the bottom [of the list]... The most important place of [Iraqi nationalism is among] armed forces, which serve as a safety valve for [our] security. If [Iraqi] national ideology collapses, the country will become a ruthless jungle. The second factor is technology... Are Iraqi armed forces... capable of filling the vacuum created by a [U.S.] pullout? [The answer is,] undoubtedly, no... [Until this capability is achieved, the presence of] U.S. forces will continue to be crucial [for Iraq]... Accordingly, before demanding a U.S. withdrawal, we must cultivate true [Iraqi] nationalism in our hearts – the kind that places the good of the country above all [other] considerations."[20]

"The Improving Security Situation Has Lulled Us into Forgetting the Recent Past"

Walid Farhan and Sadeq Kazim, columnists for the semi-official Iraqi daily Al-Sabah, claim that Iraq must sign the agreement, since it could strengthen the country economically – just as, in the past, a similar agreement transformed Germany from a defeated country into an economic power – and would deter its neighbors from acting against it. Kazim wrote: "No one denies that Iraq needs this agreement... Some government elements which, initially, were in favor of [signing] it, have been compelled by the anti-agreement propaganda [to withdraw their support]... [In the past,] many countries have faced similar circumstances... [Germany] used [the U.S. military presence in its territory] to its advantage, deriving from it benefit in terms of economy, politics and security... As a result, in spite of the defeat it had suffered in wars, Germany became an economic power. Today, this can happen to Iraq [as well], since it has many ingredients of awakening; however, Iraq must have help, security, stability, and harmony between the different sectors of its people and various political bodies."

Farhan wrote in a similar vein: "The improving security situation has lulled us into forgetting the recent past... The agreement may be rejected under the rubric of 'the good of the Iraqi people,' or it may be accepted under the same rubric... In our country, we are but pawns, at the mercy of the neighboring countries – which did not commiserate with us in time of trouble and were criminally obdurate to our pain... If Iraq does not sign the agreement, it will regress, submitting once again to the mercy of its neighbors. [On the other hand], Iraq's signing [the agreement], would fill Iran with trepidation, since its neighbor would be a U.S. ally... it would also annoy the Saudis, [resentful of the presence of a country] which is similar to it, yet able to compete with it for financial might and influence... Let us remember that the only alternative to the U.S. is the criminal mandate of the neighboring countries."[21]

'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, director-general of Al-'Arabiyya and former editor of the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, and Shaker Al-Nabulsi, a Jordanian liberal residing in the U.S., believe that only the U.S. can rescue Iraq from its neighbors and set it on the right course. Al-Rashed wrote: "Iraq needs stability, and there is no way to preclude internecine wars other than through an American presence... [Neither] must the danger presented by Iran be disregarded, since Iran has set its eye on its wealthy and important neighbor, like a hawk hovering above its prey, waiting for an auspicious moment to strike... The strategic security agreement will not benefit the Americans in Iraq; it [will, however, be conducive to forging] active bilateral relations [between the two countries], as is the case with Washington and the GCC countries."[22]

Al-Nabulsi wrote: "The ones who opposed freedom and democracy in Iraq during the new era, and supported and assisted terrorist activities in the past five years, are the same ones who today oppose the agreement between Iraq and the U.S... Iran, the main opponent of this agreement, wants Iraq to be deprived of every vestige of its deterrence power and to be engulfed by anarchy, so that [Iran] can abuse it, spreading chaos and terror as it pleases, as has been its custom in recent years... There is no doubt that Iraq's present circumstances render the signing of the agreement with the U.S. imperative – [considering that] such an agreement the U.S. usually signs only with countries with which it has friendly [relations] and common interests...

"Who will deliver Iraq from this all-encompassing conflagration if not the U.S., despite its fatal mistakes in Iraq? Who ousted the Iraqi dictatorship if not the U.S., notwithstanding the heavy price that both it and Iraq have had to pay? Has any individual, or any Arab leader – a single one – lifted a finger to rescue the Iraqi people from the [Saddam] dictatorship? Today, in light of Iraq's intention to sign a cooperation agreement with the U.S. at the end of July, 2008, some Arab political commentators are shedding crocodile tears, wailing and calling on Iraq not to do so lest it be plundered, its oil stolen, and its sovereignty violated.

"But who has plundered Iraq over the past five years? Who has murdered thousands of innocent Iraqis during the past years? Who has violated Iraq's sovereignty during this time? Wasn't it the neighboring countries that sent Iraq 'gifts,' from the east, the west, the north, and the south, in the form of booby-trapped cars and explosive belts – to celebrate the new era that has dawned upon it?"[23]

The Agreement Opens a Much-Needed Avenue for Reintegrating Iraq into the International Economy

In an interview for the Al-Sabah round table, conducted by Iraqi researcher 'Alaa Hamid with four Iraqi academics specializing in international economy, the latter intimated that a continued U.S. presence in Iraq would benefit the Iraqi economy. They stated that the agreement would open a much-needed avenue for reintegrating Iraq into international economy: "The U.S. has tremendous economic power and is the largest industrial and agricultural producer [in the world]... We must capitalize on the American presence [in Iraq], benefiting from [the U.S.'s] standing and influence on economic organizations worldwide... Let us remember an important political rule: Countries [must be] ruled not by the force of sentiments but by the force of interests...

"Now that [some] success has been achieved in [safeguarding Iraqi] security and political stability, its economy will regain its regional and international standing."[24]

*D. Hazan is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] On June 14, 2008, the London daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi reported that the Iraqi parliament had rejected the fourth version of the long-term agreement prepared by the U.S.

[2] According to Al-Hayat (London), June 15, 2008, which quoted sources affiliated with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.

[3] (Iraq), June 13, 2008.

[4] (Iraq), July 9, 2008.

[5] (Iraq), June 2, 2008.

[6] Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), July 13, 2008.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 1, 2008.

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 13, 2008.

[9] Kayhan (Iran) May 29, 2008.

[10], June 8, 2008.

[11], June 9, 2008; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 10, 2008.

[12], June 10, 2008.

[13] www.alnajafnews. Net, June 14, 2008.

[14] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 11, 2008.

[15], June 20, 2008.

[16] Al-Thawra (Syria), July 27, 2008.

[17] Al-Bayan (UAE), July 23, 2008.

[18] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), June 8, 2008.

[19] Al-Hayat (London), June 10, 2008.

[20] Al-Sabah (Iraq), June 27, 2008.

[21] Al-Sabah (Iraq), June 10, 2008.

[22] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 12, 2008.

[23] Al-Jarida (Kuwait), June 19, 2008.

[24] Al-Sabah (Iraq), May 30, 2008.

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