A New Step Towards Ending the War?

Mark Vorpahl

On November 27 the Iraqi Parliament passed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which provides a legal cover for the continuing US occupation for the next three years. This legislation is meant to replace the United Nations Security Council Resolution, set to expire on December 31. The date for the vote had been postponed several times to allow SOFA’s backers time to make deals to assure a majority. For instance, in order to get the support of the Sunni parties, it was agreed to include a call for a national referendum on SOFA in July of 2009. However, considering that the vast majority of Iraqis are opposed to the occupation, it is more likely that this referendum will go the way of several other previously scheduled referendums in Iraq and never take place.

The final vote count on SOFA was 149 in favor out of 275 parliament members. The bill needed 138 votes to pass. The depth of division surrounding the vote cannot be understood by these numbers alone. During the vote, SOFA’s opponents pounded the tables and loudly chanted “No, no to the occupier. No, no agreement.” When debating this bill, physical fights broke out on the Parliament floor, leaving representatives to bring in armed guards to defend themselves.

Even more significantly, popular opposition spilled into the streets. On November 21 in Firdaus Square, where in 2003 US soldiers toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein, many thousands protested SOFA in a peaceful but militant demonstration. They were responding to a call by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a large following among Shiite working class and urban poor. In a message drafted by Sadr and read at the protest, a speaker said:

“No, no to the humiliation! This crowd shows that opposition to the agreement is not insignificant and parliament will be making a big mistake if it chooses to ignore it. Let the government know that America is and will not be of any use to us because it is the enemy of Islam. The government must know that it is the people who help it in the good and bad times. If it throws the occupier out, all the Iraqi people will stand by it.”

As the Parliament’s vote on Thursday shows, the government has no intention of throwing out the occupying troops in spite of the widespread hatred held by the Iraqi people for the occupation. In response to this mood, al-Sadr has threatened to re-mobilize the units of his Mahdi Army if SOFA is passed. Now that it is the law, there may be more pressure on al-Sadr to follow through with this.

Officials in Washington have admitted to McClatchy Newspapers that the administration has withheld the official English translation of SOFA in order to avoid any public debate that could complicate the vote in Iraq’s Parliament. Apparently, the US public isn’t worthy of having an informed opinion, not to mention a say, on a bill that involves the lives of thousands of American troops and hundreds of billions of US tax payer dollars.

Appearances are Deceiving

SOFA is filled with loopholes. What it may appear to say could very well turn out to be very different in practice. This was hinted at when one Washington official told a McClatchy Newpaper reporter regarding how the Iraqi and US politicians are interpreting the bill, “There are a number of areas in here where they have agreement on the same wording but different understandings about what the words mean.” This disconnect is because, in the twisted world of capitalist diplomacy, laws are not interpreted and put into effect according to how well they are written. Rather, their writing and implementation is the result of economic muscle and the threat of brute force in the pursuit of profits. The Iraq government could not last long without US military backing, therefore, while Washington may allow the parliament a symbolic show of independence, there can be no doubt who is pulling the strings and who is the puppet.

The supporters of SOFA point out that, for the first time, a timetable for withdrawal has been attached to the occupation. American troops are scheduled to pull out of Iraqi urban centers by July of next year, and leave Iraq altogether by the end of 2011. However, the White House stated that these deadlines are “aspirational,” undermining any claim that they are binding on the part of the pact’s defenders.

It should also be noted that the timetable, as tenuous as it is, provides the incoming Obama presidency a convenient rationale to ignore his campaign pledge to pull the troops out in 16 months. Given the weakness of Iraq’s puppet government and the role Iraq plays in continuing US domination of the oil rich Middle East, it is likely that Obama will use SOFA as a reason for ignoring his promise to the American people to remove the troops within 16 months. If the Iraqi people vote against U.S. occupation in the referendum, that will trump any stalling on Obama’s part.

SOFA’s supporters state that for the first time American troops could face prosecution by Iraqi courts. However, this could only happen in cases of “major and intentional crimes” when the troops were outside their bases and off duty. What SOFA’s supporters don’t say is that any such prosecution would fall under US legal jurisdiction because court procedures have not yet been worked out in Iraq. And when it comes to defining the duty status of a service member, that is left up to the US military alone. Of course, it is likely that there will be a few symbolic cases against low level soldiers. Any prosecution for major war crimes on the part of the military brass is still off limits.

SOFA states: “Each Party shall waive the right to claim compensation against the other Party for any damage, loss, or destruction of property, or compensation for injuries or deaths that could happen to members of the force or civilian component of either Party arising out of the performance of their official duties in Iraq.” Since it is unlikely that Iraq will be bombing US cities and towns or destroying US citizen’s homes any time soon, this clause effectively bans only Iraqis from seeking compensation for US destruction.

SOFA’s supporters claim that the US will now have to seek Iraqi approval for any military missions. However, the US administration has stated that it is interpreting this provision to mean no more than that US commanders will notify their Iraqi counterparts of a military operation in a given city or region at an undisclosed time.

SOFA’s supporters claim that it bans the US from invading other neighboring nations, using Iraq as a base. This can be easily manuvered around, however, by claiming that US troops are pursuing hostile combatants across national boundaries in self defense.

SOFA also continues to allow US control of billions of dollars of proceeds from the sale of oil held in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. According to a January 2004 report, “President Bush issued an executive order directing the transfer of funds controlled by the Iraqi government and its financial and oil institutions to the U.S. Treasury.” About $10 billion, or a third of Iraq’s total reserves of foreign currency and gold, are currently in this account according to an October Congressional Research Service report.

The US control of these funds was, in part, a trade off for the US not pursuing legal claims for these assets incurred during Hussein’s regime. They were to be spent on Iraq reconstruction. However, billions have been left unaccounted for and billions more paid out to war profiteers such as Halliburton with little seen in return by way of reconstruction. SOFA does nothing to address this intolerable situation that not only denies the Iraqis control over their own resources but continues to rob this nation plunged into desperate poverty as a result of the occupation.

The Occupation Continues

In the build up toward the vote, SOFA’s supporters warned of increased insurgency, foreign attacks, and piracy if it wasn’t ratified. These politicians could not provide any evidence for the threat of foreign attacks or piracy. In regards to the possible growth of the insurgency, there would be no insurgency if there were no occupation in the first place. In making this warning, it appears that what these parliamentarians are really more concerned about is their ability to hold onto power without direct US military back up. SOFA’s passage reveals that the current Iraqi government is more interested in defending US big business interests which lie behind the occupation than on representing the interests of the Iraqi people.

Rather than getting the US troops out of Iraq, SOFA provides more reasons to continue the occupation. Rather than being an act of national sovereignty, the bill’s passage exposes how subservient the Iraqi government is to US imperialist interests. And rather than promoting peace, SOFA’s ratification provides more fuel for an upsurge in fighting against the occupation and its puppet government. In short, for everything SOFA’s defenders claim in both Iraq and Washington DC, the exact opposite is true.

Whatever the next administration does in Iraq, it seems it will unavoidably end in a historic defeat for US imperialism. If the US pulls out its troops, the government it has stitched together, the business dealings it has imposed on the country, and the military bases and infrastructure it has built to facilitate US control will largely be lost. If the troops stay, the same will be true since continued occupation is unsustainable. The main difference between these scenarios is that with the latter there would be the added costs of thousands more US lives and hundreds of billions more of US tax dollars. This is true for Afghanistan as well, where Obama has promised to commit more troops.

As the effects of the world recession hit even harder, it will become clearer to US workers and the Anti-War Movement that what is a defeat for US corporate interests is our gain. We have no interest in subjecting the people of Iraq to continued occupation. We do have an interest in building ties of solidarity with them in order to bring the war and occupation to an immediate end. Every dollar spent and every life lost in this war comes at the expense of our future. That is why the Anti-War Movement must not be deceived by the capitalist politician’s promises but continue to demand: Bring the Troops Home Now! This is the surest way to immediately end the war and occupation. The most effective way to proceed to end the war now is to help build an independent, broadly based, united anti-war coalition composed of all the anti-war forces in the country that will call for and organize truly massive demonstrations in Washington, DC and San Francisco on March 21, 2009.

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Mark Vorpahl is a unionist and anti-war activist and writer for Workers Action. He may be reached at portland@workerscompass.org