Global Policy Forum

Iraq Hints at Delay in US Security Deal


By Alissa J.Rubin

New York Times
July 3, 2008

Declaring that there will not be "another colonization of Iraq," Iraq's foreign minister raised the possibility on Wednesday that a full security agreement with the United States might not be reached this year, and that if one was, it would be a short-term pact.

American officials, speaking anonymously because of the delicate state of negotiations, said they were no longer optimistic that a complete security agreement could be reached by the year's end. At a news conference in Baghdad, the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told reporters that some headway had been made, but that negotiators were deadlocked over issues like the extent of Iraqi control over American military operations and the right of American soldiers to detain suspects without the approval of Iraqi authorities.

Negotiations are complicated by political currents in both countries. Iraqi officials facing elections in the fall do not want to be seen as capitulating to the United States. At the same time, they are eager for some form of agreement to prevent any rapid departure of American forces.

In the United States, President Bush has pushed hard for a deal to be completed by July 31. But Democrats in Congress are reluctant to sign off on an agreement before the presidential elections, and Republicans are split. As a result, Iraqi politicians say, the likelihood is for the two sides to devise an interim pact extending the presence of American troops in Iraq in some mutually acceptable form for a limited amount of time.

The security agreement, sometimes referred to as a status of forces agreement, is needed to replace a United Nations mandate that serves as the legal basis of the American troop presence and expires on Dec. 31."There is controversy here in Iraq," Mr. Zebari said. "We have an election here; they have an election there. It's a political matter." Noting that the United States cannot stay in Iraq without legal authorization, Mr. Zebari cited three options: "Either we conclude a status of forces agreement; or we have an interim agreement until a SOFA can be completed; or we go back to the Security Council at the end of the year and ask for another extension."

An interim pact, he said, could take the form of a memorandum of understanding and related documents, which would be less extensive than a formal security agreement. They probably would be appended to the document that President Bush and the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, signed last year that laid out the principles for a continuing relationship between the countries.

In the past, Iraqi policy makers have been emphatic about avoiding a further extension of the United Nations mandate, but some are reconsidering that position. Under that resolution, Iraq is immune from liability lawsuits stemming from the era of Saddam Hussein, which could run into the billions of dollars.

A spokeswoman for the American Embassy in Iraq said that she could not elaborate on the negotiations. "It's too many moving parts, positions are changing too rapidly," the spokeswoman, Mirembe Nantongo, said. "It's an ongoing negotiation. We know where we are in terms of Iraqi sovereignty. We don't want anything that will weaken or compromise Iraqi sovereignty."

Mr. Zebari said that on his recent trip to the United States, in addition to President Bush, he had met with the presumptive presidential nominees, Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat. He said that Mr. Obama had asked him: " ‘Why is the Iraqi government in a rush, in a hurry? This administration has only a few more months in office.' "Mr. Zebari said he told Mr. Obama that even a Democratic administration would be better off having something "concrete in front of them to take a hard look at."

Mr. Zebari also indicated that even a full agreement would be short. "We are not talking about 50 years, 25 years or 10 years; we are negotiating about one or two years, so this is not going to be another colonization of Iraq," he said.

Most Iraqi policy makers predict that the two sides will reach an interim agreement, though possibly one that will extend longer than Mr. Zebari described. "We are thinking there is no benefit from signing a long-term security agreement," said Eman al-Asadi, a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a leading Shiite party.

But she added that a memorandum of understanding could last as long as 10 years and include provisions for a gradual drawdown of American troops.

Still, no one is giving up yet on negotiating a larger agreement, said Hassan Sinead, a member of Dawa, Mr. Maliki's party.

"If we can't reach a final agreement with the Americans about the security agreement by the end of this year," he said, "then we have another choice: to attach a protocol to the strategic framework agreement that will arrange the relationship between the American forces and the Iraqi government."

At a practical level, changing the form of the agreement will not affect the American presence in Iraq in the short term. There appears to be no discussion of forcing American troops to leave Iraq at the end of the year. It is more a matter of finding a form for an agreement that is acceptable to all sides, giving the American military the practical authority it needs to function in combat while letting the Iraqis say they are not locked into a lengthy agreement.

Mr. Zebari's remarks were his most detailed public statements about the negotiations with the United States over the future status of American forces in Iraq, now in its sixth year of a war that began with the American-led overthrow of Mr. Hussein in the spring of 2003.

On Tuesday, Mr. Zebari told Iraqi lawmakers in Parliament that the Americans had conceded on one area of contention in the negotiations — the legal status of private security contractors in the country. He said that the United States had agreed to lift immunity for them, so they would be subject to prosecution under Iraqi law.

The security companies, like Blackwater USA, have a reputation for using excessive force in protecting diplomatic and other foreign clients, and operate with immunity from Iraqi law. That status became a political issue last fall, after a Blackwater shooting in Baghdad left 17 Iraqis dead.


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