Iraq’s Shias Split over the Impending U.S.-Iraq Status-of-Forces Agreement

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 40

Major divisions have begun to emerge in the Shia political bloc following the Iraqi cabinet’s approval of a proposed security agreement between Baghdad and Washington that would authorize American forces to remain in the country until the end of 2011 (Voices of Iraq, November 18; Arab Times, November 20). Despite forming a united front against the bilateral agreement last summer, the approval of the latest version of the pact has stirred discord within the Shia leadership, which is squabbling over various legal terms in the status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) and the timetable calling for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops by December 31, 2011 (For an earlier Shia reaction to the talks, see Terrorism Focus, June 18).

In many ways, the divisions emerging between Shias are largely motivated by Iraqi electoral politics. Ahead of provincial elections scheduled for the end of January 2009 and the general elections later in the same year, each Shia party is calculating the political losses and gains of the agreement, estimating the risks of political concessions that would allow U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after 2011, conditional on the level of security. For those factions that make up the ruling party and directly participated in the negotiations (i.e. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa party and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council – SIIC), the strategic objective of the pact has been to engage Washington to maintain the current stability through next year’s elections, the outcome of which will likely be in favor of the ruling factions in Baghdad. Al-Maliki, who has bolstered his leadership image since the Basra offensive in March, sees this as an opportune moment to consolidate his power, even seeking ways to accommodate the interests of Sunni factions to strengthen his position in parliament (Al-Sabaah [Baghdad], November 19).

However, those Shia factions who were not involved in the negotiating process (i.e. the Sadrists and the Fadhila Party) have shown outright hostility to the entire deal on the basis that the security agreement would legalize the presence of U.S. forces beyond 2011, and ultimately undermine Iraq’s national sovereignty (Voices of Iraq, October 4). Such nationalist rhetoric has resonated among the urban poor in cities like Baghdad and Basra, where Sadrists are beginning to form a new militia movement (“The Promised Day Brigade”) to thwart the security agreement (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 18).

For Sadr and other Arab Shia nationalists like Ibrahim Jafari (who appears to have split from the Dawa party in recent weeks), the approved security agreement is a testimony to the decline of Baghdad as home to an autonomous and elected government (Fars, October 3; Middle East Online, October 20). While organizing demonstrations in cities like Kut and Baghdad, the Sadrists have compared the security pact with the 1978 Camp David Accords, viewed by Arab nationalists as a one-sided agreement that merely advanced the interests of Western powers and led to the disintegration of a united Arab front (Voices of Iraq, October 12; Fars News, October 18). Prior to its approval, the agreement was also rejected by some moderate Shia clerics, who believed the bilateral pact would undermine Iraqi sovereignty and provide U.S. troops a permanent foothold in the region. As Karbala-based cleric Murteza Qazwini described it, the deal is fundamentally an illegal document that violates Iraq’s national sovereignty (Voices of Iraq, October 3).

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a leading Shia cleric based in Najaf, has also opposed the security pact, challenging the non-transparency of the deal and a lack of provisions that would guarantee Iraq’s sovereignty (IRNA, July 5; Fars, October 4; Al-Sabaah, October 11; IRNA October 23; Voices of Iraq, October 31). But Sistani has also thrown his weight behind Maliki and Hakim in confronting Washington over specific phrases in the agreement (IRNA, October 10; Press TV, November 19). As al-Maliki regularly visited Sistani in Najaf and sought his approval on various terms of the agreement, the grand ayatollah continued to support al-Maliki by maintaining that the responsibility to sign the security agreement lies in the hands of Baghdad. Sistani’s cautious stance on the security deal underlines how he sought to bridge the gap between those Shia factions who participated in the negotiations (the Dawa and SIIC) and other parties who saw themselves as outsiders to the negotiation process (the Sadrists and Fadhila). The reality, though, is that Sistani is unable to singlehandedly overcome such divisions, since his authority is largely limited to those Shia factions inside the ruling government; in other words, those who already support and have directly negotiated the agreement.

In the background lies the shadow of Iran. Since the beginning of the talks, Tehran has opposed the security agreement for fear that Baghdad would succumb to U.S. pressure in establishing permanent bases in the country that would pose a military threat to Iran (Al-Manar TV, September 6). An Iranian analyst described the proposed security pact as reeking of ambiguity and conditional phrases that provide plenty of room for Washington to legally legitimize its military presence in Iraq beyond 2008 (Tabnak, October 22). Despite Tehran’s attempt to influence the negotiations, even allegedly bribing Iraqi lawmakers to oppose the pact weeks before its approval, the Maliki government, along with pro-Iranian politicians like Hakim, has resisted Tehran’s calls to simply reject the pact, while assuring Tehran that their country will not be used as a launching pad for any attack on Iran (Al-Manar TV, September 6; Today’s Zaman, October 18).

The approval of the security agreement marks a major development in Iraqi politics, which is slowly maturing in response to negotiations with the occupying forces and the need to develop a post-Baathist national politics. The factionalism behind the talks displays signs of a new post-Baathist type of democratic nationalism that is evolving more around competition between parties based on political interests rather than religious or sectarian affiliation. As Sunni and Shia factions make alliances opposing or supporting the pact, Iraqi politics is entering a new stage of democratic consolidation (Voices of Iraq, November 20). If the agreement passes in this week’s parliamentary vote, al-Maliki will be able to claim a major victory, further legitimizing his status as a non-sectarian, national leader.