Keeping an American Military Presence in Iraq

Iraqi leaders move toward a "status of forces" agreement with the United States.

An Iraqi soldier (left) on patrol with an American soldier.

An Iraqi soldier (left) on patrol with an American soldier.

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From the time america struck into Iraq in 2003, Iraqis have exhibited this great, persistent contradiction: the need for the foreign power's help and protection and an overweening pride that has made them bristle at their dependence. The debate now taking place about a "status of forces" agreement and a security arrangement with the United States puts this Iraqi ambivalence into sharp focus. More than 80 countries have such arrangements with the United States, but Iraq has never been a "normal" country. It has a history of brittle nationalism, and such an accord will have to be reached against the background of the country's factionalism and of its place in its neighborhood.

As it stands, the American occupation now rests on a United Nations mandate under Chapter 7 of its charter that sanctions Iraq as a threat to peace and abridges its sovereignty. That mandate expires by the end of the year, and the Bush administration is keen to give the American presence the status of a bilateral security arrangement. In the American scheme, this would be done by the end of July, but the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has its own rhythm and challenges.

This is no small development, the extension of the Pax Americana to Baghdad. If a struggle is said to be taking place over Iraq between America and Iran, this seals the outcome and puts to rest the claim that the Iraq war has midwifed a Shiite theocracy in Iran's image. No surprise, the Iranians and their Iraqi proxies have weighed in against such an accord. But Maliki has shown no small measure of steadfastness. He traveled to Iran and delivered a mixed message: Iraq would determine its own policy, but it would not be a launching pad for a U.S. military campaign against Iran.

Tilt. In truth, there has never been a serious prospect that Iran would dominate Iraq. Iraqis are a tough breed, and jealous of their independence. Maliki and his government gave an unmistakable sign of their destination in November when they initialed a "declaration of principles" pledging Iraq to an alliance with Washington. For his part, President Bush made no secret of his preference for a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. It was odd that Maliki, a politician forged in the underground of the Shiite Dawa Party, would take his country into the American orbit. He had spent long years of exile in Syria. He was a stranger to American ways and suspicious of American intentions. But he is a pragmatist, and all around him are Arab states bound to the United States by security arrangements: Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates.

Maliki was not a man alone in the tilt toward the United States. He came to this choice with the warrant and the approval of some of the country's most influential leaders among the Sunnis and the Kurds, and within his own Shiite community. There has been no explicit statement from the Shiite religious hierarchy in Najaf and its pre-eminent jurist, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. But subtlety is Sistani's trademark. His representatives have let the word out that an agreement with the United States would have to receive parliamentary acceptance.

The Shiites are known for a cardinal doctrine of their practice taqiyya (dissimulation), the concealment of unpleasant truths. The Americans and the Iraqis will have to master the art of concealment if they are to work out a viable accord. In congressional testimony last April, our shrewd ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, displayed the needed skill: "The agreement will not establish permanent bases in Iraq, and we anticipate that it will expressly forswear them. The agreement will not specify troop levels, and it will not tie the hands of the next administration."

So, we shall have a presence in Iraq, while avoiding the stigma that military bases carry in an Arab-Islamic world sensitive to the legacy of colonialism. The Iraqis shall have the drapery of sovereignty—for instance, contractors like Blackwater will have to be subject to Iraqi law—but American forces will control Iraqi airspace.