Washington, DC – House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) sent a letter urging the President to ensure that any the future Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the United States and Iraq adequately protects the safety and security of U.S. troops:

June 18, 2008

George W. Bush
President of the United States of America
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

 I am writing to express my strong concern about the potential impact that the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) currently being negotiated with the Republic of Iraq may have on the security of U.S. troops stationed in that country.  I am sure you have seen the letter I recently sent with Chairman Howard Berman discussing our dissatisfaction with both the amount and quality of information Congress has received on the subject of the SOFA and the accompanying Strategic Framework Agreement.  United Nations Security Council Resolution 1790 will expire at the end of the year and is unlikely to be renewed in its current form.  However, we cannot allow such time pressures to undermine the goal of ensuring that any SOFA adequately protects our troops in Iraq.

 Despite the protestations of several of the Administration officials who have briefed the Members of the Committee and our staff, there is nothing “typical” about this SOFA.  With very few exceptions, if any, we have never negotiated a SOFA under fire before, where new rules are put in place that govern the behavior and affect the security of U.S. troops already engaged in combat and that has the potential to increase the risk to our soldiers and civilians in Iraq.  Congress should not, and I believe will not, permit any agreement to take effect that would unnecessarily increase the risk of U.S. casualties.

 I believe that there are a number of areas in which the proposed SOFA could affect the safety and security of U.S. troops in Iraq.  I have tried to outline the main questions below.

 Several media articles concerning the SOFA have suggested that U.S. military actions would be subject to coordination with the government of Iraq.  It is understandable for any sovereign government to wish to have situational awareness about the activities of foreign troops in their country, but how this coordination is conducted could have a significant impact on the security of U.S. forces.  For example, will U.S. ground forces have freedom of movement or will they be required to seek permission of local, provincial, or national Iraqi authorities to conduct patrols?  Who can veto proposed U.S. actions?  Will there be limits on the types of actions that can be undertaken, such as restrictions on air strikes, even in self defense?  Will U.S. forces be allowed to conduct counter-battery fire in response to mortar and missile attacks on bases?  If patrols and other combat actions must be coordinated with Iraqi authorities in advance, with what authorities, and how will operational security be maintained?  Will U.S. forces have to seek permission to pursue those who attack them or will units in “hot pursuit” be allowed to follow their attackers wherever in Iraq it is required?

 A number of media articles have also discussed proposed limits on U.S. authorities to arrest and detain Iraqis.  While it again is rational for any sovereign government to not allow a foreign army to detain its citizens at will, if not handled carefully this could have a directly negative impact on the security of U.S. forces and their effectiveness in combat.  For example, what assurances will be given that those who attack U.S. forces will face the Iraqi justice system and won’t simply be released?  Will U.S. forces be allowed to detain or arrest Iraqi nationals at all?  What mechanisms will be created to guarantee that intelligence developed from detainees that may have an impact on U.S. force protection or operations will be given to U.S. forces? 

 Many media articles, quoting Iraqi officials, have suggested that private security contractors would no longer be immune from Iraqi law, even for official actions.  Security contractors protect many facilities where U.S. military forces are stationed and have protected convoys carrying supplies on which U.S. military forces depend.  It is not unreasonable for the Iraqis to wish there to be legal controls on the behavior of these contractors, but it is also not impossible to imagine that the private security contractors will not wish to operate in what is perceived as a hostile legal environment where they could be subject to arrest for actions taken in self-defense or simply by local authorities who resent their presence.  Have the private security contractors been consulted about restrictions that could be placed on their operations?  Has the Department of Defense studied what measures would have to be taken, and how many personnel would be required, to replace the security contractors if they no longer were willing or able to operate in Iraq?  If the security contractors were willing to continue to operate in Iraq, will there be some sort of risk premium and what would the cost be?

 In most SOFAs, U.S. troops are not subject to prosecution for official actions, and are often exempted from any potential prosecution.  Some recent articles have suggested that the Government of Iraq may not be willing to accept such conditions.  However, the judicial system in Iraq is not as developed as in some other nations with whom we have SOFAs, and that other SOFAs that grant host nations the authority to arrest and try U.S. personnel for some criminal actions apply only to U.S. troops stationed in those countries during times of peace. I believe that the U.S. Congress will insist that any SOFA not subject U.S. troops in combat to Iraqi criminal law, and we have passed provisions to this effect in the past.  What guarantees will be included in the SOFA providing U.S. troops with full immunity from prosecution? 

 Finally, I would note that many other SOFAs require local authorities to coordinate with U.S. forces to ensure the protection of the U.S. troops.  Will such a measure be included in the proposed SOFA?  If so, how will such coordination be conducted and ensured?  What enforcement mechanism will be in place for such guarantees?  Who will bear the costs for any actions taken by the Iraqis to enhance U.S. security, and if they refuse to take actions that we consider necessary, will the U.S. taxpayers have to pay to make up for the Iraqis lack of action?

 Many other questions can, and should, be asked about the proposed agreements with Iraq, from the strategic justification for such to long-term basing concerns to how an agreement is used as leverage to push political reconciliation in Iraq to the potential for an agreement to violate, or at least stretch, constitutional boundaries.  I share the concerns of most members of Congress about all these areas, and I hope that the Administration will be forthcoming about addressing all of them.  But in my view, we cannot even begin to discuss them without some assurances that U.S. troops are not going to be put at greater risk than they are now by a proposed agreement.  Our troops have done all we have asked, often at tremendous personal risk, and they should not be asked to face additional, unnecessary risk for no good reason.  I hope that you agree, and I look forward to your response to these questions.