Empires Repeat History: The Status of Forces Agreement, The British Mandate, and the Future of Iraq - By Ryan Harvey

Empires Repeat History: The Status of Forces Agreement, The British Mandate, and the Future of Iraq - By Ryan Harvey

Iraq map.png
Present-Day Iraq; public domain

September 7, 2009

It is what so many have wanted for so long, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The question is, how serious is the American side of this agreement?


Historical Context of British Occupation

"Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators."

Sound familiar? This quote is attributed to British General Stanley Maude, speaking as the British army began its long occupation of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq).

After World War I, the British swarmed into the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, as well as Palestine and Egypt, while France took what would become Syria and Lebanon. Britain's occupation of what would be named Iraq, its borders drawn in British meeting rooms in a fashion the Americans and Soviets would later use in Korea, was resisted heavily. An insurgency rose up in 1920 across religious and geographic lines. In response, the British bombed civilian targets in one of the first uses of overhead bombs in history. Using drafted soldiers from their imperial conquest in India, the British fought the Iraqi people at the cost of thousands of Indian and British lives. By 1921, the resistance was crushed.

The resistance movement taught the British a strategic lesson; They realized that a full military occupation of Iraq would not be sustainable. It was too costly, both in economic and political terms. The British were becoming very unpopular in the region, and ill-will towards them was exacerbated by their use of similar tactics in half the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and large portions of Africa.

Two camps emerged within the British political system: one that wanted to bomb and shoot their way into full control of the country, and the other that wanted a "withdrawal" that left intact a client state that would serve the interests of "his Britannic Majesty". Option two won. The British would "withdraw" from the region, leaving countless advisers, major military bases full of soldiers, and binding economic arrangements firmly in place. This was Winston Churchill's proposal and it would later become Paul Bremer's proposal. It now continues as Barack Obama's proposal.

The first step of the withdrawal of 1921 was to appoint a puppet government with a flexible, domestically strong yet internationally weak figurehead. The British chose King Faisal, who took the throne in 1921 after having never lived or even traveled to Iraq previously. Faisal's first role as King was to sign into existence a "treaty of alliance" with Britain, ratified in 1924 and rewritten in 1930, which laid out the basis for British rule of Iraq for 25 years. The text of this treaty was almost identical to the 1921 British Mandate allowing the British to occupy Mesopotamia. Now the "sovereign" Iraqi government would set forward its vision, which was, of course, identical to Britain’s vision. Though as we will see, the British did not wait too long to use the first approach of bombs and guns to “edit” the agreement.

The treaty of alliance with Britain was passed in 1924 and ratified again in 1930 after much social unrest and pressure on King Faisal and his predecessor, Nuri al Said, to make changes. As is all too often the case, the treaty was one-sided. Though it promised Iraq independence upon its membership with the League of Nations, this sovereignty was dependent on their ability to self-rule, which would be determined by Britain. Plus it allowed the British to maintain their air bases and troop presence "on the understanding that these forces shall not constitute in any manner an occupation and will in no way prejudice the sovereign rights of Iraq." This should sound familiar: The current Status of Forces Agreement, presented as a "plan for withdrawal", says that U.S. troops will withdrawal from Iraq by 2011 under the same "ability to self-rule as determined by the occupier" conditions.

A decade later in 1941, the popular and anti-British Prime Minister Rashid Ali got the full understanding of what the British meant when they wrote up the part about “maintaining troop presence." After a British-organized operation induced several members of the Iraqi cabinet and the Prime Minister to resign, Rashid Ali legally assumed the presidency. When British soldiers landed en mass at Basra to fight Rashid Ali's "coup," he sent soldiers to stand up for Iraq's national boundaries. The British responded with a ferocious assault, bombing many cities and killing thousands of Iraqis. Residents of Fallujah were "scattered around the neighboring tribes, many of them being destitute... Even the Turks who had a reputation for brutality had never shelled or bombed a town full of women and children as the British had done in Fallujah." Known as the Thirty-Day War, the assault ended with the ousting of Rashid Ali, and the return of Nuri al Said, who was flown in on a British jet.

Iraq remained a British proxy until the 1950s, when for a very small window of time it experienced self-rule. Then came the Baath coup, and nearly 40 years of turbulent and bloody power politics mixed with cold-war paranoia followed, culminating after the 1979 Iranian revolution with the U.S.-backed war with Iran. Viewed in the context of global politics, Iraq has never reached its full potential as a state-project due in majority to British and American manipulation, sanctions, war, and economic occupation.

Present Day Iraq: Withdrawal, But How Far?

According to the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), "All U.S. combat forces are to withdraw from Iraqi cities, villages, and towns no later than 30 June 2009." June 30th came and the U.S. began the “town and city withdrawal," which so far includes re-drawing the map of Baghdad so that Camp Victory and other U.S. bases are no longer technically within city-limits.

"All U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011." This is the big sentence of the Status of Forces Agreement. It is what so many have wanted for so long, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The question is, how serious is the American side of this agreement?

This “withdrawal” leaves 50,000 “non-combat” troops in Iraq for another 2 ½ years. According to Chantelle Bateman, a Marine Reservist who served in Baghdad as a "non-combat troop," these troops are "totally trained and equipped" to perform combat. "I had a weapon and ammunition and I always had ammunition in my weapon." If she was fired upon and returned fire, she would be considered a "non-combat troop" in a "combat situation."

A lot of what goes on day-to-day in the Iraq occupation is considered "non-combat," including policing operations, house searches, detainments, patrols, guard duty at bases, and supply missions. Any of these operations are likely to turn into "combat situations" on any given day. Can 50,000 "non-combat" troops constitute a withdrawal? There are currently over 50,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, several of whom are dying every day, along with the much larger number of casualties amongst Afghans.

Is the U.S. withdrawing, or simply re-organizing occupation forces to meet the demands of the public and, increasingly, those of their own soldiers?

"The United States has the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over members of the U.S. forces and members of the civilian element regarding matters that take place inside the installation and areas agreed upon and during duty outside the installations and areas agreed upon…" This is Article 12 of the original SOFA, giving the U.S. jurisdiction of its soldiers and contractors. This is a violation of Iraq's sovereignty.

This article was a key hold-out in the passing of the SOFA. The Iraqis had to fight hard, with some political leaders refusing to recognize the SOFA in order for them to retain the right to detain and arrest soldiers and contractors who violate Iraqi law while they are off-duty. But the Iraqi government still can’t prosecute US soldiers if they commit crimes on-duty.

Article 13 mandates that "Members of the U.S. forces and the civilian element have the right to possess and carry weapons that belong to the U.S. during their presence in Iraq” and that U.S. soldiers must wear their uniforms while on duty. It mysteriously leaves private mercenaries and contractors out of the uniform code.

Article 15 allows U.S. forces to avoid all tariffs and taxes while importing and exporting things from Iraq; "U.S. forces and contractors with the U.S. forces may import into Iraq and export from it materials that have been bought inside Iraq, and they have the right to re-export and transport and use in Iraq any equipment, supplies, materials and technology...” These materials are not subject to licensing or any other restrictions, taxing, or customs, or any other charges imposed in Iraq..." In the original U.S. draft of the SOFA, importing or exporting such materials would not expose agents to any searches. This was removed upon further Iraqi opposition.

Article 16 continues that U.S. forces don't have to pay any taxes during their long stay. This sounds disturbingly similar to the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930; "The immunities and privileges in jurisdictional and fiscal matters, including freedom from taxation, enjoyed by the British forces in Iraq will continue to extend to the forces referred to in Clause 1 above and to such of His Britannic Majesty's forces of all arms as may be in Iraq in pursuance of the present Treaty..."

Article 21 gives the U.S. the go-ahead to continue killing large groups of people with relative impunity; "Except for claims that stem from contracts, both parties forgo their right to demand the other party to compensate for any damages, loss or destruction of properties of the armed forces or the civilian element of either party or to demand compensation for injuries or deaths that may happen to members of the armed forces or the of civilian element that are a result of carrying out their official duty in Iraq."

There are different interpretations of the SOFA process, depending on which country you are from. A senior U.S. commander who spoke to the Christian Science Monitor anonymously said of the SOFA: "We consider the security agreement a living document" in a May 19th interview, while Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Baghdad is "committed to the SOFA and that the June 30 deadline would not be extended" on May 4th.

The American and Iraqi people aren't the only ones arguing about the U.S. presence in Iraq. So are American commanders. General Odierno seems to be saying different things than Brig. Gen. Mike Murray, and General George Casey, the Army chief of staff, seems to have a drastically different idea about the future of Iraq than Defense Secretary Robert Gates. While Gates told a group of Marines in February that "Under the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011," Casey recently said, "we're going to have 10 Army and Marine units deployed for a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan" because "global trends are pushing in the wrong direction." The British Empire had a similar attitude.

The SOFA's last section, Article 30, exposes the great weakness of the treaty. "This agreement is valid for three years unless it is terminated by one of the parties before that period ends in accordance with item (3) of this article..." It doesn't mention any sort of repercussions for breaking the agreement.

In three years, will the U.S. walk around this agreement and continue with their geopolitical adventure in the Middle East, or will a strong Iraqi state follow the will of its people and keep them off?