As the end of the battle for Mosul approaches, albeit slowly, the Iraqi government appears to be making moves to heat up the increasingly warm relationship between Iraq and the US. The government headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi believes this can best be done by amending what is known as the Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States and the Republic of Iraq. It’s known as the SFA for short and as the US Embassy in Iraq’s website describes the agreement, which was signed in November 2008, it “guides our overall political, economic, cultural, and security ties with Iraq”.
At the end of last year a committee was formed, comprised of relevant bodies such as those involved in security, to review the terms of the SFA and figure out how best to amend it.
Local politician, Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee, who is close to the prime minister, says the new administration in Washington is also keen on the idea.
If the US had intervened at the right time to help Iraq confront the IS group, then the influence of the Shiite Muslim militias would not have grown so much over the past two years.
“The Trump administration has agreed to work on the SFA and that is one of the results of the prime minister’s recent visit to the US,” al-Bayati told NIQASH.
The visit, in late March, saw several meetings between senior members of the Trump administration and focused on cooperation in the post-Islamic State group era.
“Future relations with the US are going to be strengthened by the amendments to the SFA,” al-Bayati says. “Iraq will never compromise its alliance with the US.”
Even though the White House’s readout of the meeting between al-Abadi and Donald Trump focused on closer economic ties, al-Bayati sees new opportunities for cooperation taking the form of training for the Iraqi military, with the US supporting moves to make the Iraqi army more capable of preventing another security crisis such as the current one, caused by the extremists. There would be no need for boots on the ground, al-Bayati surmised.
Of course, not all Iraqi politicians are pleased about this. At one stage, near the beginning of the security crisis sparked by the Islamic State, or IS, group in June 2014, some Iraqi politicians claimed the US was not doing enough to help.
The IS group took control of the northern city of Mosul on June 9, 2014. On June 10, the then-prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, sent a letter to former US President Barack Obama asking for assistance. At the same time, Iranian advisers entered Iraq to help. It was not until August 9 that the US found itself unable to stand by any longer when it had become clear that Iraqi and Kurdish forces were not able to stop the IS group’s rampage. Since then, the Americans have mostly been involved in the global coalition and have confined their activities to air strikes and training.
Because of that hesitation early on some politicians in Baghdad claim the US was partially responsible for the IS group’s occupation of so much of the country. Some of them even suggested that the SFA be scrapped, as there seemed to be no benefit for Iraq in the relationship. It was not until February this year that the US deployed more ground troops to fight in the battle for Mosul, currently ongoing.
Many of the Iraqi politicians opposed to the US presence are affiliated with pro-Iranian parties or groups. These have tried to defame US efforts against the IS group by saying the Americans were secretly assisting the extremists, dropping them supplies or undertaking air raids against Shiite Muslim militias, who are also fighting the IS group.
The same politicians are now criticizing al-Abadi for coming closer to the US again, saying that the prime minister is trying to extend the presence of US troops in the country, something that is anathema to many Iraqis given what they describe as an “occupation” after the US’ 2003 invasion of their country.
The anti-US MPs even went so far as to attack a deal between the Iraqi government and a US security company, that has been tasked with protecting the international highway between Iraq and Jordan, passing through the province of Anbar, describing it as just another form of occupation.
“There is certainly also a big campaign to discredit the image of the Iraqi police and army,” one senior Iraqi government official told NIQASH; he had to remain anonymous for security reasons. “The same campaign presents the Shiite Muslim militias as the best replacement for the latter, and for keeping the country secure after the IS group is finished.”
At the same time, sectors of the Iraqi government loyal to al-Abadi, with the assistance of Shia Islam’s highest authority, Ali al-Sistani, are trying to make the established military stronger again and integrate the often-controversial Shiite Muslim militias, instead of allowing them to become an independently powerful force in Iraq, the official continued.
“The Iraqi government and the US are continuing to work together on that,” he noted. “They are establishing agreements that are going to last for years, on training and further cooperation. There is definitely going to be a big political fight about this after the IS group is gone though; some of the parties in parliament are going to be very opposed to that.”
Right now the SFA contains what might best be described as relatively vague definitions of the relationship between the US and Iraq. Section III of the agreement, on security, is seen as particularly important.
In the past Ahmed al-Rubaie, an expert on international law, has told NIQASH that, “The agreement isn’t actually binding for either party. And it doesn’t define the size or nature of US support to Iraq in security-related issues. The agreement contains expressions of support but it in no way defines what the size of, or nature of, this support should be.”
Al-Rubaie says that either party could do everything – or nothing – and there would be no legal consequences. There are no punitive clauses in the SFA if either party doesn’t abide by it.
The broadness and lack of clarity in that section are part of the reason that the Iraqi government is seeking to redefine the SFA, and to try and make the US more supportive to ensure against future risks from extremist groups.
And an amended SFA may mean a lot in the future. In the opinion of the senior government official NIQASH spoke with, “if the US had intervened at the right time to help Iraq confront the IS group, then the influence of the Shiite Muslim militias would not have grown so much over the past two years,” he argues. “Some of those militias are closer to Iran and they are rebelling against the government.”
If the SFA had been more clearly defined back then, maybe that particular problem would not be as troubling as it is now, he suggests.