Dyer: Iraqi deal with the United States over troops isn't just for show
It has been a short hundred years. That's how long Republican presidential candidate John McCain said that American troops might have to stay in Iraq at the beginning of his campaign, but the deal that Washington concluded with the Iraqi government last week said that they must all be gone by 2011. And they must be off the streets of Iraqi cities by the middle of next year.
That's not enough for a lot of Iraqis. Fifty thousand supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader who embodies the resentment of the poor against the Shia establishment, came out onto the streets of Baghdad on Saturday to protest against the deal signed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They want the Americans to leave now, which is also Sadr's position, and it may win him a commanding position in parliament when Iraq votes again next year.
Maliki stood up for Iraqi sovereignty partly because he would pay for it in next year's election if he did not, but he was never just an American puppet. He opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and he also opposed the decision of his own party, al-Dawa, to join the first Iraqi "governing council" set up by occupation pro-consul Paul Bremer six months later.
So the negotiations for a "status of forces agreement" to provide legal cover for the U.S. military presence in Iraq after the United Nations mandate expires in December were not just window-dressing. The Bush administration had to abandon its quest for permanent military bases in Iraq, although there is a clause in the deal that allows for a change of mind in Baghdad.
As Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh put it, "in 2011 the government at that time will determine whether it needs a new pact or not, and what type of pact will depend on the challenges it faces." But the shoe is definitely on the other foot now, with the American right to keep troops in Iraq lapsing automatically at the end of 2011 unless the Iraqi government wishes otherwise.
Iraq was less successful in trying to make American troops responsible to Iraqi courts for their actions. The deal contains a clause saying that Iraqi law will apply "if they commit a serious and deliberate felony outside their bases and when off duty," but in practice no American soldiers leave their bases when off duty, and while on duty they can still kill any Iraqi who seems threatening with no questions asked. However, foreign civilian contractors will be subject to Iraqi law in future.
It's not all that bad a deal, given the extent to which Maliki's government depends on American troops for survival. But even within the alliance of Shia parties that dominates the government it faces severe criticism and may not get through parliament. Outside, in the real world, it still feels like a fantasy.
It is now an undisputed factoid in the American political debate that Iraq has been stabilized by last year's "surge" of U.S. troops. But the reality on the ground is rather different. There is less sectarian killing, but that is mainly because the ethnic cleansing of mixed neighbourhoods where Sunni and Shia Arabs used to live side by side is almost complete. Other major outbreaks of violence remain possible.
The "Awakening" movement, in which tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs who had been fighting the American occupation went on the U.S. government payroll in order to fight the takeover of their community by al-Qaida extremists, is at a crossroads. Starting this month, the "Awakening" fighters are being paid by the Iraqi government, not by the Americans, and it has announced that only 20 percent of them will be absorbed into the Iraqi army.
The other 60-odd thousand fighters of the "Awakening" will only be paid until they find civilian jobs - but there are almost no well-paying jobs available in Iraq apart from government work, which usually requires a recommendation from one of the big Shia parties. So what do the rest of the Sunni fighters do? Go back to fighting the Americans? It's not unimaginable.
And the possibility of war between Arab Iraq and Kurdish Iraq over the border between the two regions is ever present: The promised referendum on the future of the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields is the sword of Damocles hanging over the whole of Iraqi politics. The relative calm that Iraq is experiencing at the moment may just be the eye of the hurricane.
* GWYNNE DYER is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.