Iraqis on the SOFA: Definitely Maybe!

bush-maliki.jpgThe New York Times’ Alyssa Rubin declares that the election of Barack Obama “is already beginning to shift the political ground in Iraq and the region.”

Iraqi Shiite politicians are indicating that they will move faster toward a new security agreement about American troops, and a Bush administration official said he believed that Iraqis could ratify the agreement as early as the middle of this month.

“Before, the Iraqis were thinking that if they sign the pact, there will be no respect for the schedule of troop withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011,” said Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a major Shiite party. “If Republicans were still there, there would be no respect for this timetable. This is a positive step to have the same theory about the timetable as Mr. Obama.”

Buried in the middle of the article is what I think is a more accurate rendering of the scene:

Mr. Obama’s election also coincided with the American negotiators’ acceptance of many of the changes Iraqis demanded in the agreement, which created an overall picture that was easier both for the Iraqis and their neighbors — Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia — to accept.

The American negotiators sent a new version of the agreement to Iraqi leaders on Thursday that included many of the changes Iraqis had demanded. In public, Iraqis said merely that they were studying the document.

By contrast, the Washington Post reports that Iraq’s chief spokesman said with unusual forcefulness Thursday that his government will continue to insist on a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops, despite American demands that any pullout be subject to prevailing security conditions.”

“Iraqis would like to know and see a fixed date,” spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in an interview in which he also reiterated Iraq’s position that American forces be subject to Iraqi legal jurisdiction in some instances.

Iraqi officials, who see President-elect Obama’s views on the timing of a U.S. withdrawal as consonant with their own, appear to be leveraging his election to pressure the Bush administration to make last-minute concessions.

While I think there’s little doubt that Obama’s election has had an effect on the calculations of Iraq’s political leaders, and strengthened their position against the Bush administration, there’s a danger in overstating the amount of influence that U.S. leaders themselves have in Iraqi politics, a consistent problem with Bush’s approach.

The SOFA in its previous form was effectively scuttled by prominent Shia clerics with influence on Iraq’s leading Shia parties, and it remains to be seen whether the changes accepted by U.S. negotiators will be enough to satisfy the ayatollahs. Unsurprisingly, several Sadrist leaders have already indicated that they are not.

The Bush administration has wasted a huge amount of time and political capital basically bargaining with Iraqi government to stay in Iraq. Rather than accept the inevitability of a U.S. exit, and then leverage that withdrawal to pressure Iraqi leaders to confront the difficult political issues which still persist, President Bush instead clung to a fantasy of a long-term military presence in Iraq, and now finds the impending arrival of a new administration being used as leverage against him.