by Janet Weil

Moving Chess Pieces in IraqToday, all U.S. troops must be withdrawn from Iraqi cities, including U.S. bases in Baghdad, according to the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Iraq. The Iraqi government will also take legal responsibility for the actions of U.S. troops and have legal jurisdiction over American soldiers who commit crimes off-base and off-duty, and the SOFA will grant permission to U.S. troops for military operations, as well as ban the U.S. from staging attacks on other countries from Iraq.

While it may seem like a step forward toward ending the six-year occupation of Iraq, the Pentagon is doing what it can to dodge or play down these SOFA stipulations. In recent weeks, it has been re-classifying bases and troops, hiring “corporate security” mercenaries, and preventing Iraq from having jurisdiction over those actions. It’ll get away with it too, as Congress never ratified the SOFA, and because many are justifying further occupation under the banner of keeping Iraq secure.

Leading up to the June 30th deadline, the Pentagon has been playing shell games with bases and with soldiers. City limits have been modified to exempt bases from the agreement and soldiers who have moved out of cities are now encircling them. As Erik Leaver points out in his article “A Withdrawal in Name Only,” three thousand troops stationed at the FOB Falcon, located within Baghdad, will not be moving, because Iraqi and American military officials simply decided it wasn’t within the city limits. And thousands of troops in bases sleeping outside the cities will continue to serve in “support” and “advisory” roles in the day.

And while troops may be moving out of the cities, they are not moving out of the country just yet. The military has been expanding and building new bases in rural areas to accommodate the movement of soldiers, and Congress just passed a bill that includes more funding for military construction in Iraq. In reality, only 30,000 troops have left Iraq since September last year and 134,000 troops still remain.

But the 132,000 military contractors in Iraq are the real loophole. How do they fit into the withdrawal plan? How many of them will stay past June 30th? Or past 2011? Military contractors have been used extensively in the War in Iraq to evade legal accountability and hide the true cost – and body count – of the war. In fact, mercenaries may be on the rise and will spark additional violence in the country.

Arab-American journalist Dahr Jamail points out the violence in Iraq has largely been quelled because the U.S. has paid Iraqi resistance fighters to keep the peace, and the increase in violent resistance in May and June is due to many fighters losing their paychecks from the US government. In his blog, MidEast Dispatches, Jamail writes:

“Attacks against U.S. forces are once again on the rise in places like Baghdad and Fallujah, where the Iraqi resistance was fiercest before so many of them joined the Sahwa (Sons of Iraq, also referred to as Awakening Councils) and began taking payments from the U.S. military in exchange for halting attacks against the occupiers and agreeing to join the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Daily we are watching Sahwa members leave their security posts."

He further explains that many Iraqis are rejoining the resistance in protest of losing their paychecks and increasing government attacks, and thus, have stopped targeting al-Qaeda.

Instead of continuing to pay these resistance fighters, the U.S. plans to replace some soldiers and Marines in Iraq with mercenaries — private U.S. contractors and corporations. This new occupying force will continue to alienate Iraqis and delay any real Iraqi independence.

But despite working all the loopholes, the U.S. never officially committed to playing by the rules of an Iraq withdrawal, anyway. In 2007 and 2009, members of Congress including then-Senator Hillary Clinton believed the SOFA should have been ratified by Senate to be legitimate. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Clinton urged Obama to sign on to her legislation that would have required Bush to bring the SOFA to Senate first. Obama, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, never agreed to do so. But once Clinton dropped her opposition to Obama’s unanimous selection as the Democratic presidential nominee, and was rewarded by being chosen as Secretary of State, she put her SOFA principle aside and now supports an agreement that only one country – Iraq – has ratified. The U.S. Senate’s role in ratifying bilateral agreements has been nullified, a development that should worry all who have been concerned about a “unitary executive” and an increasingly weakened Congress.

Even in Iraq, withdrawal plans have been undermined. The Iraqi parliament planned to ratify the SOFA under a national referendum this month. But recently the Iraqi cabinet decided to reschedule to align with the national parliamentary elections in January 2010. The SOFA is widely unpopular and seen as legitimizing the US occupation until 2011. If it goes to a vote, it will likely be defeated. So Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders have colluded with both the Bush and Obama administrations to subvert the will of the Iraqi people.

If by July 31 however the Iraq SOFA is not referendum-ratified or a 12-month cancellation notice issued, it will expire. If it expires, the U.S. will be in Iraq without legal authorization and U.S. forces may be subject to lock down until the matter is resolved. Under these conditions, U.S. troops will no longer have the bilateral protections – effectively left in a legal and political limbo.

Ultimately, the Pentagon must stop playing chess games to slow down a real withdrawal. And our leaders in the White House and Congress – who just passed another $70 billion for the war – must take real leadership to end this war, including withdrawing all our troops, ending the use of military contractors, stop funding any permanent bases in Iraq, and allowing the Iraqi people the space to reclaim their country.

Janet Weil is a CODEPINK staff member based in San Francisco. Her nephew is preparing to be deployed to Afghanistan in November.