Washington and Baghdad: the treaty that isn’t


In the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze,” the world’s most famous private detective refers to “the curious incident of the dog in the night.” “But the dog did nothing in the night,” replies his interlocutor. “That was the curious incident,” says Holmes. The dogs aren’t barking over the U.S.-Iraq treaty, either, and that is equally curious.

To begin with, the Iraqi dogs aren’t barking. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki clearly doesn’t like the deal that the Bush administration is forcing on him, but will accept it because his government wouldn’t survive a week without U.S. military support. The Shiite religious authorities will not issue a fatwa against it, because their first priority is to preserve the Shiites’ newfound domination of Iraq. But in fact most Iraqis who know about it, hate it.

That includes most of the Iraqi Parliament’s 270 members, who recently sent a letter to the U.S. Congress asking it to reject any U.S.-Iraq security agreement unless the White House agrees to a timetable for pulling troops from Iraq. But Congress will not get to vote on the deal, because the White House has defined it not as a treaty (which has to be ratified by the Senate), but as an alliance (which doesn’t).

Equally curious is the lack of outcry in the U.S. media.

Last week the Middle Eastern correspondent of “The Independent,” Patrick Cockburn, published two leaked reports about the terms of the “alliance” and the tactics that the Bush administration is using to get the Iraqi government’s approval by the end of July. Nobody denied them, but hardly any mainstream outlet in the U.S. media reported them as a major story, either.

Cockburn revealed that the United States will retain more than 50 military bases in Iraq as part of the “strategic alliance” it is pressuring Baghdad to sign.

They will not be defined as U.S. bases, however, since U.S. negotiators insist that a perimeter fence with a few Iraqi soldiers on it is a sufficient fig-leaf to make it an “Iraqi base.”

However, those American soldiers on “Iraqi bases” will be able to carry out arrests of Iraqi citizens without prior consultation with the Iraqi authorities, if U.S. negotiators get their way. U.S. soldiers, and American civilian contractors as well, will enjoy full legal immunity for their actions. So it will remain the case, as it has been since the invasion, that any American employed by the U.S. government in Iraq can kill any Iraqi without having to explain and justify his or her actions to Iraqis.

Indeed, the U.S. will be entitled to conduct entire military campaigns on Iraqi soil without consulting the Iraqi government. The U.S. government is not even willing to tell the Iraqi government what American forces are entering or leaving Iraq under the terms of the “alliance,” apparently because it fears that the government would inform the Iranians.

Terms of this sort are familiar from the era of the European empires, when similar treaties were signed between, for example, the British government and its Iraqi colony in the Middle East. Ali Allawi, minister of finance in the Iraqi transitional government 2005-06, warns that this is “a reprise of that treaty,” and predicts that it will lead to the same “riots, civil disturbances, uprisings and coups” that filled the quarter-century between the British-Iraqi treaty in 1930 and the Iraqi revolt that finally overthrew the local puppet regime in 1958.

Some sort of treaty is needed to provide a legal basis for a continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq, since the existing U.N. mandate lapses at the end of 2008. The particular treaty that the White House is forcing on Baghdad is designed to justify a permanent military occupation of Iraq, and as far as possible to tie the next administration’s hands when it comes to pulling U.S. troops out of the country.

The Iraqi government will probably accept the U.S. demands after some protests, because its survival depends on American troops.

Washington is also threatening to allow $20 billion of outstanding U.S. court judgments against Saddam Hussein’s regime to be executed, wiping out 40 percent of Iraq’s foreign exchange reserves, if the government in Baghdad does not cooperate on the treaty.

The trickier question is what happens if President George W. Bush’s successor is not the like-minded John McCain. To the extent that these two can successfully pretend that the U.S. has won the war in Iraq, they can attach a very high political cost to Barack Obama’s pledge to pull U.S. troops out of the country, and this treaty also serves as part of that charade. But it does not oblige U.S. troops to stay in Iraq forever. It just says they can if they want to.

This game is not over, nor is the war.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist.