- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Bush administration has agreed to allow Iraqi courts to try some U.S. soldiers and civilians accused of serious crimes, require U.S. forces to consult Iraqis before engaging in combat and return control of Iraqi airspace but has built in loopholes to protect U.S. interests, according to drafts of two accords obtained by The Washington Times.

“It’s smoke and mirrors,” said Feisal Istrabadi, a former ambassador to the United Nations for Iraq. “There is no actual substance to Iraqi sovereignty in these agreements.”

A long-awaited and politically contentious status of forces agreement (SOFA) states that both sides will work to protect Iraq from “internal and external threats against the Republic of Iraq and to cement cooperation to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq and other outlawed groups.”

To that end, the Iraqi government requests “the temporary assistance of U.S. forces for the purpose of supporting its effort to safeguard security and stability in Iraq including cooperation in carrying out operations against al Qaeda, other terror groups and outlawed groups.” As reported for several months, the document states that U.S. forces must quit Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011, “at the latest.”

A second, strategic framework agreement — obtained in Arabic by The Times and reviewed by Mr. Istrabadi — is short on strategic goals, dealing broadly with diplomatic, political and cultural cooperation, with a brief section on defense and security cooperation, Mr. Istrabadi said. It also addresses cooperation on energy, technology, information and communications.

Mr. Istrabadi said the draft — which must still be approved by the full Iraqi government and parliament — requires a memorandum between the U.S. president and the Iraqi prime minister that is supposed to take effect on Jan. 1, but can be terminated at will. “The assumption seems to be that there will be further side agreements,” he said.

Administration officials confirmed the draft SOFA’s authenticity but said the language is still undergoing changes. Although they declined to comment substantively on the text, they said safeguards to protect U.S. soldiers are “more stringent” than in similar agreements with longtime U.S. allies such as Japan and Germany.

In case of crimes, a joint U.S.-Iraq commission will make mutual decisions, the officials said.

They added that the Dec. 31, 2011, withdrawal date refers to combat troops and will have “conditionality language” attached. It would give the U.S. president the flexibility to adapt, based on conditions at the time, and the Iraqis the option to invite the Americans to stay longer.

A number of U.S. lawmakers — including Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois — have asked the administration to review these agreements before they are signed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates briefed key members of Congress on the draft accords Thursday and Friday, while congressional staffers were briefed Friday by the White House National Security Council.

Neither the Obama campaign nor that of Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona responded to requests for comment.

Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat who has sought congressional input on the accords, said, “Everyone seems to be missing a big issue here.” He said the language in the agreement regarding U.S. military obligations makes it clear that this a treaty that must be ratified by the Senate.

“Of course, this is a treaty,” he said. “They can call it what they want, but this section irrefutably implies a treaty.”

Reaction to the documents by Iraq specialists was mixed.

“The Iraqis have gotten a lot in this agreement, including joint supervision of military operations, control over their airspace and the possibility of jurisdiction over premeditated and gross felonies committed off base and off duty by U.S. soldiers,” said Daniel Serwer, vice president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “They’ve also got several ‘best efforts’ type commitments of U.S. support to Iraqi’s security and security forces.”

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