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U.S. withdrawal timetable set as Iraqi parliament passes SOFA

Under agreement, U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, country by Dec. 31, 2011

December 10, 2008
On Nov. 27, while many of us were enjoying our Thanksgiving meals, the Iraqi parliament was ratifying a historic status of forces agreement (SOFA), signed by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari on Nov. 16, that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq until Dec. 31, 2011, but not a day longer.

The agreement, drawn up after months of negotiations, comes just a month before the U.N. mandate allowing U.S. forces in Iraq expires. Iraq Sunnis were the main proponents of the SOFA and needed to convince Iraqi Shiites and Kurds to concede their wishes for an immediate withdrawal in favor of an agreement with a three-year time table for a troop reduction that also granted Iraq sovereignty in the areas of national security, domestic law enforcement and international law.

With these concessions made, the SOFA passed the Iraqi parliament by a vote of 149-49 on the condition that the agreement be put to a national referendum in July of next year. Only 198 of the 275-member parliament were present last Thursday as many were absent on their pilgrimage to Mecca.

The agreement may read Dec. 31, 2011, as the withdrawal deadline, but it also states: "The United States admits to the sovereign right of the Iraqi government to demand the departure of the U.S. forces from Iraq at anytime. The Iraqi government admits to the sovereign right of the United States to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq at any time."

This means that technically President-elect Barack Obama could adhere to his 16-month withdrawal plan from the time of his inauguration proposed both during his campaign and again at his press conference on Dec. 1 and have U.S. forces out of Iraq by the middle of 2010, while still staying within the confines of the agreement.

An early withdrawal could also come if the SOFA does not pass the national referendum in July 2009. If the referendum fails, U.S. forces would have until July 30, 2010, to withdraw or reach another agreement.

The key language addressing sovereignty in the form of jurisdiction comes in Article 12 of the agreement stating that Iraq has jurisdiction over members of the U.S. forces and members of the civilian element "regarding major and premeditated crimes" when they are committed outside of defined U.S. installations and when the offenders are off duty. Iraq also has jurisdiction "over private contractors which have contracts with the United States and their employees." This would include private security firms such as Blackwater, as well as development contractors.

Rules on detention are also clearly stated in the agreement. Article 22 says that U.S. forces are not allowed "to detain or arrest any person (except the detention or arrest of a member of the U.S. forces or the civilian element) unless it is an accordance with an Iraqi decision issued under Iraqi law." If U.S. forces do happen to arrest or detain a person with a warrant issued by Iraqi law enforcement, they are required to turn the detainee over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours. U.S. forces are also not allowed to search houses or premises without a warrant except in cases of actual combat.

Two final key provisions in the agreement include the need of approval from a special U.S.-Iraqi military panel before any military operations are conducted and an agreement that the United States will not use any Iraqi land, water or airspace to attack surrounding countries like Iran or Syria.

While many in the United States and Iraq seemed supportive of the decision, the passing of the agreement did spark a protest by 9,000 supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite Cleric who has consistently denounced the U.S. presence in Iraq and has called for an immediate withdrawal, in Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City.

Iran, a key player in the region's stability, did not offer comment until Monday, when it said it would support the SOFA if it passes the referendum in July 2009.

The Clarion News staff encourages discourse on this subject in the form of feedback on the Clarion News Web site (www.clarionnews.net) or in the form of a letter to the editor. Look for the follow-up piece to this article where members of the community are asked how they feel about the security pact.

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