A Withdrawal in Name Only

On November 17, 2008, when Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker signed an agreement for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, citizens from both countries applauded. While many were disappointed about the lengthy timeline for the withdrawal of the troops, it appeared that a roadmap was set to end the war and occupation. However, the first step — withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009 — is full of loopholes, and tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers will remain in the cities after the “deadline” passes.

The failure to fully comply with the withdrawal agreement indicates the United States is looking to withdraw from Iraq in name only, as it appears that up to 50,000 military personnel will remain after the deadline.

The United States claims it’s adhering to the agreement, known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), even with so many troops being left in the cities. But the United States is changing semantics instead of policy. For example, there are no plans to transfer the 3,000 American troops stationed within Baghdad at Forward Operating Base Falcon, because commanders have determined that despite its location, it’s not within the city.

The original intent of moving troops out of the cities was to reduce the U.S. military role and send the message to Iraqis that the United States would be leaving the country soon. But troops that are no longer sleeping in the cities will still take part in operations within Iraqi cities; they will serve in “support” and “advisory” roles, rather than combat functions. Such “reclassification” of troops as military trainers is another example of how the United States is circumventing the terms of the SOFA agreement.

The larger loophole in the agreement is the treatment of military contractors. There has been little mention of the 132,610 military contractors in Iraq. Of these, 36,061 are American citizens, according to a recent Department of Defense report.

Since September 2008, only 30,000 troops have left Iraq. The 134,000 soldiers that remain are just slightly below the number of troops that were in Iraq in 2003. These numbers are likely to remain well above 100,000 until 2010.

Instead of sending soldiers stationed in cities home, the military has been expanding and building new bases in rural areas to accommodate soldiers affected by the June 30 deadline. And Congress just passed a war-spending bill that includes more funding for military construction inside Iraq.

The implications of the June 30 pullout are manifest: As Iraqis grapple with increasing responsibility for the security of their country and American military leaders search for avenues to project their influence, withdrawal from urban areas will set important precedents for the proposed full withdrawal of American forces.

The ability of Iraqi and U.S. commanders to subvert the SOFA and extend the stay of U.S. troops in Iraqi cities past the June 30 deadline does not bode well for the other withdrawal deadlines laid out in the agreement. Moreover, the vague language of the agreement lends itself to the possibility that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq past the December 31, 2011 deadline.

This all may be for naught, however, as a referendum on the SOFA is scheduled for July 30 in Iraq. Despite attempts by the Iraqi cabinet to postpone the vote, lawmakers think a delay is unlikely. The measure is likely to lose if it goes to popular vote given the widespread opposition to the SOFA in Iraq, which is seen as legitimizing the U.S. occupation until 2011. According to the latest polls, published in the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, 73% of Iraqis oppose the presence of coalition forces. If the SOFA is struck down by the vote, U.S. forces could be forced out of Iraq immediately as the forces would not be legally protected.

The referendum could create big problems for the Obama administration, which has quietly discouraged the Iraqi government from holding it. The pressure from the administration is inconsistent with their goals of promoting democracy in Iraq. The people, who have been forced to live under occupation for the past six years, deserve a chance to have their voices heard.

Obama campaigned on a promise to leave Iraq. Yet the response to the June 30th deadline, the lack of support for the referendum, and the passage of another $70 billion for the war are stark indicators of what the real Iraq policy may be.

Erik Leaver is the Policy Outreach Director for Foreign Policy In Focus and is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Daniel Atzmon is a student at Wesleyan University and an intern at the Institute.