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Do Permanent US Bases in Iraq Mean a Permanent Occupation?

US and Iraqi Government Haggle Over Permanent US Military Presence

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us occupation of sadr city

Uncomfortable stance: An American soldier and a young Iraqi boy, as if in a stand-off in the middle of Sadr City in Baghdad, symbolize the vast gulf that separates American designs on Iraq from Iraqi expectations of Americans.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Updated June 13, 2008

Background

In November 2007, Iraq and the United States signed a “Declaration of Principles” that was to be the first step toward an agreement formalizing America’s permanent presence in Iraq. That agreement is necessary because the United States would have no legal authority to stay in Iraq without Iraqi approval. But such an agreement would raise the prospect of a permanent American military occupation of Iraq.

Currently, American and other contingents of the multinational force in Iraq remain in the country by authority of a United Nations Mandate. The mandate, which was extended in 2006, is in effect at the request of the Iraqi government. But it expires on Dec. 31, 2008. Beyond that date, no member of the multinational force can remain in Iraq without explicit approval from the Iraqi government.

Negotiating Over a Long-Term US-Iraqi Agreement

To that end, Iraqi and American officials have been secretly negotiating since November 2007 on a permanent agreement that would enable American forces to remain in Iraq past December 2008. The negotiations did not stay secret long. Iraqis (more than Americans) were quick to learn about them—and take to the streets in protest over what they saw as overtly imperious American demands. Pressure against the deal was especially acute from Iraq’s Sadrists, or followers of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army repeatedly fought American and Iraqi forces to draws whenever those forces attempted to rout Sadr’s backers.

The government of Iraq, itself dominated by Shiites and legitimized by popular Shiite backing, cannot afford the enmity of Sadrists. With that in mind, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nur al-Maliki has been increasingly resisting American demands. In June 2008, Iraqi-American negotiations over a long-term pact reached an impasse.

What the United States Wants

American demands have been kept officially secret. But they’ve leaked by way of Iraqi government sources, who have refused to keep them secret. Americans want:

  • At least 58 permanent military bases across Iraq. (In comparison, the United States maintains 36 military bases in South Korea.)
  • Control over Iraqi air space up to 30,000 feet, including the right to refuel in mid-air. American and British air forces have been used to controlling vast swaths of Iraqi air space going back to the first Gulf War, following which they established two “no-fly” zones for Iraqi planes in the northern and southern parts of the country. Since the 2003 American-led invasion and occupation of the country, the U.S. Air Force has had free rein over Iraq.
  • Full immunity from Iraqi laws for American soldiers serving in Iraq as well as for private-security contractors, mercenaries and other employees of American concerns serving with the U.S. military in Iraq. That immunity is in place now. But it has enabled many incidents that have damaged Iraqi property or caused death and injury to Iraqis to go unpunished.
  • No expiration date on the agreement. But A clause would enable either side to end the agreement with two years’ notice.

What Iraq Wants

Iraq’s position isn’t uniform or entirely clear, because Iraq’s government isn’t fully representative of various Iraqi constituencies. Sunnis, for example, are not well represented. Even among Shiites, views are fractured. On the whole, however, Iraq’s position finds consensus around the following demands:

  • A vast reduction of American forces in Iraq. As of mid-June 2008, the American military had between 158,000 and 160,000 soldiers in Iraq. The Bush administration was projecting modest draw-downs, but nothing close to the reductions the Iraqis want.
  • Confining American troops to their bases except when Iraqis call on them for help.
  • Far fewer than the 58 military bases the United States wants to maintain in Iraq.
  • No unlimited American access to and use of Iraqi air space without Iraqi controls and regulations. No mid-air refueling privileges. The refueling-in-mid-air demand raises fears among Iraqis that American forces would use Iraqi airspace and bases as staging areas in a bombing campaign against Iran.
  • No immunity from Iraqi laws for American forces or private-security and other contractors working with the American military.
Summing up the Iraqi position, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said: “We can’t extend the U.S. forces permission to arrest Iraqis or to undertake the responsibility of fighting terrorism in an independent way, or to keep Iraqi skies and waters open for themselves whenever they want.”

Prospects and Requirements for a Deal

The Bush administration acknowledged in mid-June that the Iraqi government was balking at several demands. But the administration was instructing its negotiators to be flexible, and suggesting that a deal was still possible by July. If such a deal is struck, the Iraqi government plans to submit the agreement to the Iraqi parliament for approval. The Bush administration has no intention of submitting the agreement to the U.S. Congress for approval.

If a deal falls through, the problem would become that of the next American president. John McCain’s position on the Iraqi-American negotiations is unclear. McClatchy reports that “the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, said through a spokesman that he believes the Bush administration must submit the agreement to Congress and that it should make ‘absolutely clear’ that the United States will not maintain permanent bases in Iraq.”

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