A senior Bush administration official said on Monday that the Status of Forces agreement signed yesterday in Baghdad between the U.S. and Iraqi government was not only a victory for the United States and Iraq, but a huge defeat for Iran. Tehran had been making enormous efforts “in the overt channel and in the covert channel” to undermine any pact.
“Iraqis are choosing to be Iraqis first and have come to resent the kind of influence Iran has tried to assert on them,” the official told Newsmax in a conference call with conservative columnists.
“This agreement is a sign of success” for the Iraqi government in its efforts to “stand up to Iran,” he said.
Domestic opposition to the Status of Forces agreement, or SOFA, has diminished in recent weeks as Iraqis have taken a “more sober look at their alternatives,” the senior official said.
Opposition to the agreement has been spearheaded by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is widely considered to take his orders from Tehran.
“I think Iran’s role here really caused Iraqis to reassess their priorities. What we see playing out here are across the sectarian divide of the Iraqi political scene is a rallying around the Iraqi flag,” the official said.
The official said the U.S. expects the Iraqi parliament to vote on the new agreement on Sunday, “and we think al-Maliki has the votes” to pass it.
According to the official, who spoke on condition he not be identified by name because of the sensitivity of the issues involved, the agreement does not include a provision for long-term U.S. bases in Iraq.
Under the agreement, U.S. forces will cease active combat roles in populated areas by June 2009, and will fully withdraw from Iraq by Dec. 2011.
Those dates coincide with the battle plans of U.S. commanders in the field, who have been “fully embedded” in the negotiating process, the official said.
The U.S. currently has no Plan B, but neither does Iraq, the official said. “Our Plan B is to make Plan A work,” he said. The agreement will require an up or down vote by the Iraqi parliament and cannot be amended, he added.
The White House will brief members of Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday, and release the text of the agreement after those consultations. The official made clear the SOFA was an “executive agreement” and not a treaty requiring ratification by the U.S. Senate.
On Sunday, the prestigious Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, met with emissaries from Prime Minister al Maliki and gave his blessing to the agreement.
Within the Shiite hierarchy, Sistani outranks Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and indeed, every cleric within Iran’s ruling elite. Only a few ageing grand ayatollahs, who have been under regime-ordered house for the past twenty-three years, carry more weight.
In a sudden about-face, the chief of Iran’s Judiciary branch, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, praised the agreement on Monday, saying the Iraqi government had done “very well” to approve it.
Asked to comment on Iran’s sudden reversal, the White House official pointed to an “old Army saying, that you need to be for what’s going to happen anyway.”
From their own perspective “the Iranians have got this right: this agreement threatens their position in the region and certainly is contrary to what they imagine to be their future relationship with government and the people of Iraq,” he said.
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