An Iraqi Accord and a New U.S. President

By Walter Pincus
Monday, October 27, 2008

The status-of-forces agreement that would govern conduct of the U.S. military and its contractors in Iraq beyond 2008 would apparently tie the hands of the next U.S. president in some respects if it was ratified by the Iraqis before Jan. 20.

For example, the next president would have to wait a year if he wanted to pull out of the agreement altogether, according to Article 31, the final section. The current draft says that "cancellation of this agreement requires a written notice provided one year in advance," according to an English translation of the Arab version.

Even modification of the agreement's provisions would be difficult, requiring "written approval of both sides and . . . accordance to constitutional procedures in both countries." That means that if the new president wanted to change any provisions, he would have to get the approval of not only the Iraqi government but also its legislative body.

Neither Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) nor Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) should worry, however. Chances are the Iraqis will not approve the deal. If they do, there probably would be no need for a President Obama to change it: He could order troop reductions before the deadlines without violating the agreement. And a President McCain, if he wanted, could consider the deal a Bush executive agreement that he could change with a stroke of his pen.

To date, the main public focus concerning the draft agreement has been U.S. troop withdrawal deadlines and immunity from local prosecution for American military and civilian government employees charged with crimes in Iraq. But there are many elements that favor U.S. interests.

For example, U.S. aircraft and civilian planes contracted by the United States would be authorized to fly in Iraqi airspace as well as refuel over and land in Iraq without paying taxes or landing fees. Anyone authorized by American officials to board U.S.-owned or contracted aircraft could not be stopped or searched. The same freedoms would apply to U.S. ships and ships contracted to the Defense Department during use of Iraqi ports.

The Iraqis are to provide at no cost special radio frequencies for U.S. forces who are permitted to operate their own wired and wireless communications. Once U.S. forces leave, the frequencies would be returned to the Iraqi government.

American armed forces and civilian employees could enter and exit Iraq using U.S.-issued ID cards and travel documents and could not be asked for anything else. Materials that U.S. forces and contractors brought in to Iraq or exported for use in training and services would not be "subject to search or to license requirements." Included would be equipment and materials for personal use and consumption. The United States would be required to establish regulations "to ensure no materials or articles of cultural or historical value are exported."

U.S.-issued driver's licenses would be accepted for operation of personal cars in Iraq by U.S. forces, civilian government employees and contractors, without Iraqi tests or fees. The same would apply to valid U.S.-issued professional licenses when used in activities related to jobs.

Outgoing mail sent through military postal services would be "exempt from being searched, examined or confiscated by the Iraqi authorities except for the unofficial mail that might be subject to electronic monitoring."

The agreement would not end U.S. forces' authority to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens without Iraqi warrants. An exception relates to those picked up during military "operations," which typically has been when most Iraqis are seized. In the future, even these Iraqis would have to be turned over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours.

U.S. forces would no longer be permitted to search houses or property without an Iraqi court warrant, although that prohibition also includes an exception for operations undertaken in coordination with Iraqi forces, the current practice.

As for the 18,000 Iraqis now held in U.S. detention facilities, a list of their names and information about them would have to be given to Iraqi authorities when the agreement went into effect. Then, with "complete and active coordination with the Iraqi authorities . . . all detainees in U.S. custody shall be released in a safe and organized fashion," unless the Iraqis wanted to hold them.

On the other side of the ledger, the billions of dollars of U.S. construction on bases and installations in Iraq would become the property of that country.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to

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