No word better sums up the dangers the United States faces in Iraq today than a four-letter acronym you've probably never heard of: SOFA. Several decades ago, SOFA helped America lose Iran. Now it has become the biggest sticking point between Washington and Baghdad.
SOFA stands for Status of Forces Agreement, a type of compact that governs the treatment of U.S. personnel abroad. With U.S. troops scattered around the globe, these agreements are critically important, and there are some 90 of them in force, each tailored to the special requirements of the host nation. The Bush administration now wants to add Iraq to this list, in order to help formalize the long-term U.S. security presence there.
That doesn't sound problematic, but there's a catch. Most SOFAs grant U.S. personnel immunity from prosecution by the host country. In this case, according to leaked accounts from Iraqi leaders, Washington is demanding even more. The proposed deal would guarantee U.S. rights to more than 50 military bases, give Americans the right to detain terror suspects without prior Iraqi approval, ensure U.S. control of Iraqi airspace and extend legal immunity to civilian contractors. The Pentagon says it's all necessary for the security of Iraqis and U.S. personnel. The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said the deal "deeply affects Iraqi sovereignty, and this we can never accept."
It turns out that immunity grants have long been controversial and have an unpleasant history in the Middle East, where they've generated serious crisis in Turkey, Egypt and especially Iran.
Starting back in the 16th century, Ottoman sultans, to promote trade and gain European good will, began granting foreign merchants immunity from Turkish laws. But this irked locals. Then, in 1905, Sultan Abdul Hamid was targeted in a failed bomb (27 bystanders were killed). Edward Joris, a Belgian subject, was arrested and condemned to death by a Turkish court for alleged complicity. But Brussels demanded his release, and two years later, Joris walked free. Turkish reformers seized on the controversy to demand the abolition of extraterritorial rights, which they formally achieved in 1923 under President Kemal Ataturk of the fledgling Turkish republic.
A related dispute struck Egypt around the same time as the Joris affair. In 1906, seven British officers hunting in the village of Dinshawai bagged a flock of pigeons that were actually tame. Villagers protested, a melee erupted, and a Captain Bull collapsed and died from heat stroke, and Bull's comrades beat a villager to death. This murder went unpunished, but for instigating the scuffle, four villagers were hanged, eight were severely flogged and others were arrested. British critics of imperial rule seized on the case as an example of colonial hubris. George Bernard Shaw asked his readers to imagine their reaction if a party of Chinese officials turned up in an English village "and began shooting the ducks, the geese, the hens and turkeys and carried them off, asserting that they were wild birds, as everybody in China knew, and that the pretended indignation of the farmers was a cloak for hatred of the Chinese."
Despite such protests, extraterritorial privileges were not totally abolished in Egypt until 1947. In Iran, the guarantees had been abolished by the newly enthroned nationalist Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1928. But in 1962, the Pentagon began pressing his son and heir to approve a sweeping new grant of immunity in return for military aid, and in 1964, a compliant Iranian Parliament approved the pact, ignoring widespread dissent.
"Isn't this part of the reason you Americans fought the British?" an Iranian friend asked the scholar James A. Bill. His outrage was shared by Ayatollah Khomeini, then a cleric in the holy city of Qom who declared that the National Assembly had just signed a document that enslaved the country. "If the shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted," argued Khomeini. "But if an American cook runs over the shah, no one would have any claims against him." So great was the ensuing uproar that the shah banished the ayatollah, who sought asylum in Turkey, Iraq and France before his triumphant return in 1979.
The Pentagon may not realize it, but Iraq, too, suffered a SOFA-like arrangement during its decades as a British protectorate, inciting similar furies. Some sort of limited agreement is necessary to govern the status of U.S. troops there, since they're likely to remain in Iraq for some time. But it should have a limited scope to counter the widespread impression that the Bush administration wants permanent bases for an indefinite occupation. If Washington continues on its current course, the next president will find himself the inheritor of an agreement almost certain to haunt his administration, especially if, as reported, it offers legal immunities to contract employees as well as U.S. military personnel. Americans—and Iraqis—deserve better.