Still no Exit Plan

Posted Sept. 01, 2008, at 7:23 p.m.

Spending secret security agreement with Iraq is so full of conditions, uncertainties and disagreements that it is impossible to know what it means for the end of the U.S. occupation and the move to Iraqi control. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now demands a fixed withdrawal date, and Parliament Speaker Mahmud Mashhadani says the lawmakers will not pass the agreement.

The muddled situation more and more recalls Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s misleading statement a few days before the 1972 presidential election that “Peace is at hand.” Peace actually was years off then, and it looks to be years off now.

Washington and Baghdad have been negotiating the controversial security pact for months. They face a deadline of Dec. 31, 2008. That’s the expiration date for the United Nations mandate that provides the legal justification for the presence of foreign troops under U.S. command.

The negotiators’ draft sets next June for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from all Iraqi cities and Dec. 31, 2011, for the withdrawal of all troops. But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice describes those dates as merely “aspirational” — that is, desired or hoped for, while Iraqi leaders seem to be demanding the exit of all military advisers, special forces and air support by the withdrawal date. The White House spokesman says: “Any decision on troops will be based on conditions on the ground in Iraq.”

So the timetable remains up in the air, and the parties also disagree on whether U.S. troops will continue to be immune against any prosecution under Iraqi law.

Other questions about the agreement have been almost unmentioned lately. For example, exactly what commitment is the U.S. making on how it will defend Iraq against any attack after U.S. withdrawal? New York Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, probed this question in June and got only bland, uninformative answers. He asked the State Department’s Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, what would happen if Iraq is attacked and what would be Congress’ role. Mr. Satterfield replied that “the administration would act as any administration would act in defense of U.S. interests.”

The Bush administration argues that it does not need Senate approval of the agreement, since it is not providing security commitments to Iraq as part of a formal treaty.

Also rarely mentioned is the question of whether the Bush administration plans to keep permanent military bases in Iraq. Four or five of its many present bases have been built to last for many years. Officials called them “enduring camps,” but more recently “contingency operating bases.” Sen. Joseph Biden, now Barack Obama’s vice-presidential nominee, proposed a spending-bill amendment in 2006 barring the use of appropriated funds for the construction of permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq. It was passed unanimously. Officials say there are “no plans” to establish permanent bases there.

So an agreement that is not a treaty remains in dispute on key issues, and the end of the long U.S. occupation of Iraq remains uncertain.

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