You must be wondering what Sofas have got to do with the United States government. SOFA is a four-letter acronym that most people probably would never have heard of. It’s a scary word, which several decades ago lost Iran for America. Today, it is the biggest sticking point between Washington and Baghdad.
SOFA stands for “Status of Forces Agreement” which is drawn between a country and a foreign nation that has military forces stationed in that country. This agreement is intended to clarify the terms of operation of the foreign military.
U.S. SOFAs govern the treatment of U.S. personnel abroad. The U.S. courts will have power over any crime committed by a service member against another member or by a service member on military duty. They describe the legal status of the U.S. troops and their property in a host nation. They clearly point out the rights as well as the responsibilities of the United States and the host nation, on matters such as civil and criminal jurisdiction, carrying arms, wearing uniform, tax and customs relief, damage claims as well as looks into the entry and exit of the troops and property.
With so many U.S. troops scattered throughout the world and fighting for the nation, U.S. has always considered it imperative to have these critically important agreements, which in many cases grant immunity from prosecution of the troops.
The United States has about 90 SOFA’s in force as of now and the government wants to add Iraq to this list, in order to help with the long-term U.S. security presence there.
According to reports, Washington is demanding a whole lot more that just immunity from prosecution, from the Iraqi leaders. It is asking for rights to more than 50 U.S. military bases, to provide Americans the right to detain terror suspects without getting Iraqi approval first, to gain control of Iraqi airspace and to extend legal immunity to the civilian contractors. According to the Pentagon, these things are essential for the safety and security of the Iraqis as well as the U.S. personnel.
However, Iraqi leaders say that this deal is unrealistic and “deeply affects Iraqi sovereignty, and this we can never accept.” They say that they cannot give U.S. forces the right to jail Iraqis or fight against terrorism all by themselves.
Reports from Iraq are also said to reveal that U.S. troops would no longer be given immunity from Iraqi prosecution and that Iraq would not mind a memorandum of understanding in place of a SOFA, that too only if it gives a specific date for a complete withdrawal of the foreign troops in Iraq.
Granting immunity is not a new trend. Immunity grants go as far back as the 16th century and have always proved to be controversial with an undesired history in the Middle East, where they had earlier generated serious crises in Egypt, Turkey and Iran.
In the earlier days, in order to gain European good will and promote trade, Ottoman Sultans began granting foreign merchants immunity from Turkish laws. But this was not taken well by the locals. In 1905, Sultan Abdul Hamid was targeted in a bomb attack where 27 people were killed but the Sultan escaped. A Belgian, Edward Joris was arrested and sentenced to death by a Turkish court. However, Brussels demanded his release and Joris was a free man, two years later. This irked the Turkish reformers and they demanded abolition of these extraterritorial rights, which was achieved in 1923.
Experts say that, although, the Pentagon may not realize it; Iraq suffered a SOFA-like arrangement during its decades as a British protectorate and incited similar fury from the locals. It is agreed by experts that some sort of an agreement is required to govern the status of U.S. troops in Iraq, since these troops are likely to remain in Iraq for a prolonged length of time; however, it has to have a limited scope. This limited agreement will also put to rest the widespread impression that the United States government wants permanent bases in Iraq for an indefinite occupation.
It is believed that the ongoing negotiations between the United States and Iraq over the SOFA could prove to be a sort of leverage test for two foes who always enjoyed being at odds.