Agreement with Iraq over Troops Is at Risk


By Steven Lee Myers and Sam Dagher

New York Times
September 19, 2008

An agreement to extend the American military mandate in Iraq beyond this year — near completion only a month ago — has stalled over objections by Iraqi leaders and could be in danger of falling apart, according to Iraqi and Bush administration officials. The disagreements threaten a capstone of President Bush's Iraq policy during his remaining months in office. Mr. Bush has already offered significant concessions to the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in the negotiations, including his willingness to accept a specific date for withdrawing American forces: the end of 2011.

The major remaining point of contention involves immunity, with the United States maintaining that American troops and military contractors should have the same protections they have in other countries where they are based and Iraq insisting that they be subject to the country's criminal justice system for any crime committed outside of a military operation, the officials said. In a television interview this week, Mr. Maliki cited the example of an Iraqi killed by an American soldier in a market, saying that a case like that should fall "to Iraqi courts immediately." "This," he said of the American position, "they reject."

The White House has expressed confidence that an agreement can be reached before the end of December, when the United Nations mandate authorizing American forces in Iraq expires. In a sign of urgency, though, the administration plans to send its chief negotiators back to Baghdad in the coming days to try to complete an agreement that officials had originally planned to finish in July. Defense Secretary Robert. M.Gates, traveling in London, said Thursday that the administration was preparing to offer compromise proposals in an effort to overcome Iraq's objections, which he acknowledged focused on immunity and the authority to arrest and detain Iraqis. The American negotiators, he said, will be "carrying with them some ideas that perhaps meet both the Iraqi and our concerns on some of the remaining issues."

In agreeing to specific dates as a goal for troop withdrawals, Mr. Bush has had to soften his earlier warnings that deadlines were counterproductive. Mr. Bush also agreed to withdraw American troops from Iraqi cities by next July and base them in comparatively remote areas, except during operations. Administration officials emphasized that those deadlines were "aspirational" and could be shifted if security in Iraq did not continue to improve.

Michael E. O'Hanlon, an analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington, said Mr. Maliki's objections reflected a combination of factors. He cited Iraqi nationalism, Mr. Maliki's own domestic political necessities and a desire to await the outcome of the American presidential election, on the assumption that the next president could offer different terms. "He knows there has to be a deal in the end — even if it's with an Obama administration," Mr. O'Hanlon said, referring to Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president. "But by trying to get what he wants — or being seen trying to get what he wants — he shores up his position at home."

Mr. Maliki also, for the first time, raised the possibility of seeking an extension to the United Nations mandate at the Security Council, saying that had become complicated because of American and Russian tensions over the conflict in Georgia. "Even if we ask for an extension, then we will ask for it according to our terms and we will attach conditions and the U.S. side will refuse," he said in an interview on Wednesday with the directors of Iraqi satellite television channels. "U.S. forces would be without legal cover and will have no choice but to pull out from Iraq or stay and be in contravention of international law."

Such remarks reflect a growing self-confidence that has made Iraqi political leaders far more assertive in matters of sovereignty. Ali al-Adeeb, a member of the Dawa party and deputy head of Mr. Maliki's political bloc in Parliament, spoke in an interview of repeated American offenses, both real and symbolic. He cited the use of palaces and cultural sites as American bases and headquarters, disrespect for Iraqi women during searches and killings of Iraqis who ventured too close to patrols.

He said the Iraqis were insisting on limiting immunity "because the Americans are moving about in a chaotic way in Iraq without consulting with the Iraqi government." He added, "They arrest whomever they want, and they commit all sorts of mistakes without being accountable." Administration officials declined to discuss the negotiations in detail, but one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss diplomatic matters, confirmed that immunity for American soldiers and contractors was a main obstacle.

The American ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan C. Crocker, has led the negotiations from the American side, joined by two senior officials from Washington: David M. Satterfield from the State Department and Brett H. McGurk with the National Security Council. Both have spent months in Iraq this year and will return soon, officials said. In August, Iraqi officials applauded Mr. Bush's acceptance of the withdrawal dates, even if they were only on paper, as a breakthrough that effectively sealed the deal. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in Baghdad at the time, urged caution. "I just want to emphasize we'll have agreement when we have agreement," Ms. Rice said, appearing beside Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari. Steven Lee Myers reported from Washington, and Sam Dagher from Baghdad. Thom Shanker contributed reporting from London.

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