Backgrounder: U.S. security agreements and Iraq

June 11, 2008

As policymakers and presidential candidates debate the future U.S. presence in Iraq, the Bush administration is negotiating long-term agreements with Iraq's government that could shape legal, economic, cultural, and security relations. U.S. and other multinational forces have been in Iraq since 2003 under a UN Security Council mandate renewed annually.

But Iraq's government has requested that the United Nations not renew the mandate again, forcing negotiations on a detailed legal framework for the U.S. presence in the country.
Details of the draft agreements remain incomplete, and negotiations continue. But aspects of the accords—publicly discussed in recent months—are creating unease among Iraqi lawmakers and regional clerics.
Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, testifying before Congress in April 2008, said two separate accords are on the table. The first is a status-of-forces agreement (GlobalSecurity.org), called a SOFA, which would codify legal protections for U.S. military personnel and property in Iraq.
Such agreements already govern U.S. military conduct in other long-term deployment zones—including Germany, Japan, and South Korea—and the administration has characterized talks for a SOFA in Iraq as a hopeful step toward stability.
-----------Second accord
Details of the second accord under discussion are more opaque. Referred to as a ""strategic framework agreement,"" the measure would broadly address issues not covered by the SOFA, including those outlined in a ""declaration of principles"" document signed by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in November 2007.
Among these issues: the U.S. role in defending Iraq from internal and external threats; its support of political reconciliation; and its efforts to confront terrorist groups. Critics of the measures contend the Bush administration aims to tie the hands of the next president and usurp Iraqi sovereignty, charges the White House vehemently disputes.
Historically, the status-of-forces agreement is a legal framework that defines how foreign militaries operate in a host country.
Typically established by executive agreement, there is no uniform or standard format for the document, which can vary in length and specificity. The SOFA drafted in 2002 between the United States and East Timor, for instance, was less than three pages long. The 1966 SOFA with South Korea, by contrast, tops 150 pages and includes over thirty annexes.
But while most SOFAs are publicly available, others remain classified; U.S. officials themselves can't agree on how many are in effect. During congressional testimony in April 2008, Crocker testified that the United States has approximately eighty SOFAs worldwide.
A February 2008 Washington Post op-ed coauthored by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, however, put the number at ""more than 115.""
Some members of Congress have argued the Bush administration will need to send the Iraq SOFA to Congress for ratification, but White House officials have resisted. Legal experts disagree on who will win the argument.
Michael J. Matheson, a professor of law at George Washington University, says legal precedent may be on the administration's side. ""If the agreement is limited to giving U.S. forces and personnel exemption from foreign law,"" Matheson told lawmakers in February 2008, ""the president may conclude it without further congressional approval.""
------------Legal framework
Status-of-forces agreements are used to define the rights and obligations of militaries operating on foreign soil, detailing the nitty-gritty of foreign deployments—everything from how soldiers wear their uniforms and carry weapons to how their mail is delivered. But the most common issue addressed is the legal jurisdiction over foreign forces (PDF), notes R. Chuck Mason, a legislative attorney for the Congressional Research Service.
Legal protection is of particular importance to the U.S. military. According to a November 2003 Department of Defense directive spelling out the Pentagon's status-of-forces policy (PDF), the United States enters SOFAs to protect ""personnel who may be subject to criminal trial by foreign courts and imprisonment in foreign prisons.""
(Source: New York Times)