The Iraqi armed services are likely to target American security companies, which are widely hated in Iraq, when they lose their legal immunity under a new agreement between the US and the Iraq.
The main American concession, during prolonged and rancorous negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would determine the future military relationship between the US and Iraq, has been to agree to lift the immunity hitherto enjoyed by the 154,000 contractors of whom 35,000 are private security men.
“The Iraqi forces will follow them with vigor because they are not popular in Iraq,”said Ahmed Chalabi, the veteran Iraqi politician, in an interview . “People haven’t forgotten about the Iraqis who were killed by private security men in Nisour Square.” Security personnel from Blackwater USA are accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians, including a mother and child, when they opened fire in Nisour Square in west Baghdad on 16 September last year.
The ending of the immunity of foreign contractors will have serious consequences for the 142,000 US troops in Iraq who are highly reliant on them. Mr Chalabi says it is likely that the Iraqi security forces and judiciary will go out of their way to pursue and arrest foreign security men who break Iraqi law which they have hitherto flouted. He also said that the loss of immunity of American contractors would make US intelligence operations more difficult because private companies have been used to maintain links with opponents of the Iranian regime based in Iraq, notably the Mojahedin-e-Khalq. This enables the US government to deny that it has contacts with such groups.
Mr Chalabi, who recently returned from Iran where he had talks with Iranian leaders, said “the Iranians are implacably opposed to the deal. It consecrates America’s massive presence here and threatens their security. They say this will be a ‘non-security agreement’ and ‘not a security Agreement’ and they are happy for everybody to know this.” Iranian hostility would be serious for Iraq since Iran played a central role in mediating an end to fighting between the Mehdi Army Shia militia and the government in the first half of the year.
In an unexpected but important development the negotiation of a US- Iraqi agreement, to replace the current UN mandate for US forces, which is due to run out at the end of the year, is leading to a resurgence of Iraqi nationalism previously masked by Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict. Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki embarrassed the White House by saying for the first time on Monday that Iraq wants some kind of time table for a withdrawal of American forces included in the present agreement. The National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie followed this up by saying: “We would not accept any memorandum of understanding with [the US] side that has no obvious and specific dates for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq.”
American officials have tried to present these demands as wholly conditional on the effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces which now number over half a million men. An Iraqi official supporting a US-Iraq agreement said: “It will be easier to sell it to Iraqis if it is presented as a way of getting the Americans to withdraw. We still need them. We could not cope if, hypothetically, there was an uprising in Basra, an army mutiny in Anbar or the Kurds unilaterally annexed Kirkuk.”
But important Iraqi leaders have sought to outbid each other over the last three weeks in criticizing American rights under the SOFA while Iraqi supporters of the agreement have been largely mute. This suggests that the position of Republican presidential candidate John McCain that the US occupation should continue for many years will soon no longer be tenable. “We should negotiate with the next administration,” said Dr Mahmoud Othman, the veteran Kurdish politician and MP. “A letter of understanding will be sufficient for now. If the agreement does not bind the next administration why sign it? People will think it is being done to help the Republican party. It has been hurried because this administration wants to show that it has achieved something. This is obvious.”
Defenders of the SOFA, such as the Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, say that the agreement will limit and define American rights in Iraq. The alternative is to continue with the UN mandate under which US forces can do what they want. But the negotiations have provoked a nationalist backlash among Arab Iraqis because it highlights the extent to which America control their country in future.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”