The days of a significant U.S. military presence in Iraq are nearing an end as the countdown continues for the last U.S. forces to pull out of the country by the end of the year. Detention facilities are shutting down, troops are heading home, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has just visited the White House to usher in the end of almost nine years at war.
All the while, the New York Times reported earlier this week that the Obama administration remains undecided about what to do with the last detainee of the Iraq War — Lebanese national Ali Musa Daqduq, who is considered the highest ranking Hezbollah operative within U.S. custody. Daqduq is believed to be the organizer of a January 2007 Shiite kidnapping in Karbala, resulting in the death of five U.S. soldiers.
There are two ways this situation can pan out: Transfer Daqduq to Iraqi custody before the December 31 withdrawal, or, as officials are now urging, take Daqduq with or without the consent of the Iraqi government out of the country and try him in a military tribunal.
Removing Daqduq without consent of the Iraqi government (and consent is doubtful, particularly because of the political pressure Maliki would face), would be a foolish decision on behalf of the administration. Not only would it indicate that the U.S. does not recognize Iraq’s sovereignty, it would make a sham of any touted “partnership” between the U.S. and Iraq, diminishing the credibility of the administration on both the domestic and international front.
Select members of the Senate have expressed shared concerns involving Daqduq’s fate. If he is transferred to Iraqi custody, there is a good chance he will be acquitted in an Iraqi court, ineffectively incarcerated, or simply let free, as has been the case with other former detainees. He would then likely return to his work with the Quds Force of Iran and pose future threats to U.S. security. Thus, with Daqduq already in U.S. custody, it is easy to understand any reluctance to let go of him.
Nonetheless, to remove Daqduq without the consent of the Iraqi government would be a direct breach of the 2008 Status of Forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraq. It is the same document signed by former president George W. Bush in which the U.S. committed to removing troops from Iraq by the end of this year, in addition to pledging not to transfer anyone other than U.S. military personnel and civilians employed by the Department of Defense out of the country without permission from Iraqi government.
What purpose does such an international agreement serve if it is broken? These are the fundamental conventions that countries employ to maintain any sense of diplomacy. To break this agreement delegitimizes any pledges by which both countries are bound, which could easily result in Iraq’s retaliation. It would likely damage U.S. rapport with the international community, sending a message that any negotiated contracts made in the future are equally at risk of being breached. It could ignite Shia sympathizers not only in Iraq but in other locations, especially Iran, to retaliate as well.
The administration is facing increasing pressure from conservatives to not only remove Daqduq from Iraq but to bring him to Guantánamo for a tribunal. The president has already acquired reputation for backpedaling on promises; the fact that he has yet to fulfill his 2007 campaign promise to shut down Guantánamo has already scarred his credibility. Breaking an international agreement with Iraq and subsequently trying Daqduq at a tribunal in Guantánamo would be the equivalent of dumping salt in the wound, obliterating any reputation the administration has of honoring commitments.
If the president has any remote interest in campaigning on more promises next year, then it would behoove the administration to pursue negotiations before choosing to seize Ali Musa Daqduq from under Iraq’s nose.
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