WASHINGTON — U.S troops in Iraq shouldn’t expect many day-to-day changes in missions and operations under a new status of forces agreement for that country, security experts following the negotiations said.
A 12-person team of Defense and State Department officials have been discussing the agreement for months with their Iraqi counterparts. U.S. officials hope to produce a final, public draft by the end of July, despite recent negative response from Iraqi lawmakers on the progress so far.
The SOFA and an accompanying strategic framework agreement are designed to replace the United Nations Security Council resolution governing international operations in Iraq.
That legal protection expires at the end of the year, adding urgency to the talks. And both Iraqi and U.S. lawmakers would benefit from a new arrangement in the near future, said Rand Beers, president of the left-leaning National Security Network.
For Iraqi leaders, the new agreement is a chance to better establish their own sovereignty. For U.S. officials, it’s a chance to better define their role in the country before Iran or other nearby neighbors develop a larger diplomatic presence in Iraqi politics.
But it’s often a long and complex process, said Beers, who has helped negotiate SOFAs in 10 other countries.
Ruth Wedgewood, professor of International Law and Diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University, said the agreements typically focus on extradition arrangements, criminal custody matters and similar judicial matters: all items that are important for legal protection, but don’t usually affect servicemembers.
"For troops on the ground, I don’t really see much of a difference from this," she said. "The rules of engagement at the real questions for the troops over there now … and unless they take a drastically different route, I don’t see that being changed."
More than 80 SOFAs in place for U.S. troops worldwide. None of them were negotiated during a time of active military operations, said Edward Gnehm Jr., former ambassador to Kuwait and long-time State Department negotiator.
"The only thing that even comes close are post-hostility negotiations, where we’ve reached an agreement well after the fact," he said.
Still, Gnehm doesn’t expect that will mean major differences in the Iraq SOFA from others in place in places such as Germany and Japan. Issues involving legal responsibilities and custody arrangements will likely be included, he said, while military rules of engagement are more appropriate for a separate security agreement between the countries.
Defense officials have publicly pledged the Iraq SOFA will not involve "troop levels, permanent bases or security commitments to the Iraqis," according to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros.
Ballesteros did not respond to requests seeking clarification on news reports that the U.S. was demanding 58 long-term bases as part of the negotiations.
State department officials confirmed that Iraqi negotiators visited Turkey, Germany, Korea and Japan to talk to SOFA experts there about relations with the United States. None of those countries’ agreements specify troop levels or defense posture, but instead focus on issues such as the sharing of meteorological data, customs and foreign tax exemptions, and legal procedures for civil and criminal cases.
Michael Matheson, a professor at George Washington University law school who has testified before Congress on SOFA policy, said that’s no guarantee that U.S. negotiators won’t discuss those issues. But it the forces agreement would be an unlikely place for those issues.
State Department officials also would not reveal details of the negotiations so far, but have pledged to make the agreement public once the two sides have decided on a final draft.