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'Pullout' Treaty a Win for Iraq By: Amir Taheri
New York Post | Monday, November 24, 2008


IRAQ'S parliament has been in high gear this week as it prepares to debate the new security agreement negotiated between the Bush administration and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) provides for the final departure of US forces from Iraq in 2011. Opposition to it began crumbling earlier this week when Grand Ayatollah Al-Muhammad Sistani, the nation's most prestigious Shiite cleric, gave his blessing to the Cabinet-approved draft.

Conflicting signals from Tehran also showed the opposition's disarray.

Ali Larijani, the hard-line speaker of Iran's ersatz parliament, had called for "resistance and jihad" aimed at "throwing the Americans out of Iraq." And President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, acting through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, had tried to bribe enough Iraqi legislators to block the agreement.

But by midweek, neither Larijani's diatribes nor Ahmadinejad's gold had had the desired effect. And the Islamic Republic's chief justice, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroodi, an Iraqi native, issued an appeal to "all men of goodwill" to back the agreement.

Before obtaining Iranian nationality in 1982, Shahroodi had been a leader of the Iraqi Shiite faction now headed by Abdul-Aziz Hakim, the most vocal SOFA opponent. Hakim's group is now expected either to vote for the agreement or to abstain.

That would leave the groups led by the maverick mullah Muqtada Sadr and former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, both close to Tehran, with a dilemma: Oppose the agreement and face isolation, or abstain.

With the SOFA so obviously popular in Iraq, Tehran has softened its opposition to it these last few days. Most Iraqi observers now expect SOFA to pass with more than a two-thirds majority.

The agreement opens the door for officially ending Iraq's dispute with the United Nations, which started with Saddam Hussein's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Iraq would be released from UN sanctions, regaining its full sovereignty.

It also gives Iraq three years during which it will hold two crucial sets of elections. Local government elections, to be held on Jan. 31, will allow a new post-Saddam generation of leaders to secure a popular mandate. Parliamentary elections, to be held in 2010, should foster the emergence of proper parties competing through political programs rather than sectarian lists of candidates.

Beginning in January, SOFA gives Iraq three years in which to complete building its new democratic army. By mid-2009, the new army should have replaced all foreign troops in urban areas while the remaining four of the 18 provinces come under Iraqi government control.

The pact will deny America's various enemies - from al Qaeda to the Khomeinist regime - an opportunity to claim that they forced the Americans out of Iraq. It also will enable America to consolidate its victory in Iraq by ensuring that the democratic institutions created since 2003 are safeguarded in new elections.

The US had two key objectives in Iraq:

* To dismantle what was left of Saddam Hussein's war machine, ensuring that it wasn't rebuilt and used against Iraq's neighbors or other nations.

* To restore to the people of Iraq the power that had been confiscated from them by the Ba'athist dictatorship.

Both have been achieved, ensuring a clear US victory - although many in Washington seem to believe that it would be impolite or impolitic to admit that. It is one of those ironies of history that Barack Obama, who opposed toppling Saddam Hussein, now inherits this victory.

America also benefits from the fact that, by signing SOFA, it shows that it isn't a fickle friend - that its commitment to allies isn't cast aside as a result of a change at the White House.

It took the United States more than nine months to build up the forces to liberate Iraq in 2003. Thus, 36 months would be more than sufficient to ensure a phased withdrawal without risking American lives (as would the "cut-and-run" policy some of President Bush's political enemies proposed).

Perhaps more important, Iraq today shows that Bush's doctrine of Middle East democratization can and does work. Maliki's government, strengthened by grass-roots support for the new democratic system, drove a hard bargain. It forced the US side to offer concessions that it hasn't granted to any of the 80 or so nations with which it has signed similar agreements over the last seven decades.

The long negotiations have caused the Bush administration much frustration, but Bush himself surely feels a certain satisfaction in having helped the Iraqi people create a government of their own choice that defends their interests and (why not?) even ruffles some allies' feathers.

A free Iraq is good for the United States - just as a powerful America is good for Iraq.




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