Iraq's Cabinet Rejects Current Draft of US Troop Accord

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McClatchy Newspapers

Iraq's Cabinet Rejects Current Draft of US Troop Accord

by
Leila Fadel

US soldiers patrol the site of an explosion in a Christian market in Baghdad's Dora district on October 15, 2008. Shiite Muslim government ministers raised objections Tuesday to a "final draft" of an agreement to authorize U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, and after a four-and-a-half-hour cabinet meeting Iraq's government spokesman said that the agreement wouldn't be finalized in its current form. (AFP/File/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

BAGHDAD - Shiite Muslim government ministers raised objections
Tuesday to a "final draft" of an agreement to authorize U.S. troops to
remain in Iraq, and after a four-and-a-half-hour cabinet meeting Iraq's
government spokesman said that the agreement wouldn't be finalized in
its current form.

The clock is ticking: The United Nations mandate under which U.S. troops are in Iraq expires on Dec. 31.

The
agreement, which has been the subject of negotiations between the U.S.
and Iraq for more than seven months, sets the end of 2011 as when U.S.
troops are to be gone from Iraq.

However,
Humam Hamoudi, the Shiite lawmaker who chairs the parliament's foreign
affairs committee, said that Shiite representatives found the wording
on the U.S. troop departure too vague and subject to unacceptable
conditions. Lawmakers also want to strike a clause that would give the
Iraqi government the right to extend the agreement without
parliamentary approval if it felt that was advisable.

Hamoudi
said that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki himself raised objections to
the draft agreement. "The prime minister said 'What (the Americans)
have given with the right hand they have taken away with the left
hand,' " Hamoudi said.

Government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh made
it clear the current draft won't be approved as written. "There are
amendments that need to be made to the current draft in order to raise
the agreement to a nationally acceptable level," he said in a written
statement after the meeting of the cabinet, which is formally known as
the Council of Ministers.

It wasn't clear what would happen next.

U.S.
officials said they weren't disposed to continue negotiating an
agreement that was supposedly already in its final form and which U.S.
officials have been circulating to members of Congress and talking up
to the news media. If there's no agreement when the U.N. mandate
expires, however, U.S. troops would be in the country illegally and
probably would be confined to their bases, Iraqi officials have said.

"There
is great reluctance to engage further in the drafting process," Defense
Secretary Robert Gates told reporters at the Pentagon. "I don't think
you slam the door shut, but I would say it's pretty far closed."

Adm.
Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was
traveling in Latvia, warned that the Iraqi security forces can't secure
Iraq on their own.

"We have pushed this as the top priority for months now," Mullen said. "It's time for the Iraqis to make this decision."

Maliki's
been publicly critical of the agreement since the start of the
negotiations and has hinted numerous times that Iraq has the option not
to sign the agreement or renew the U.N. mandate.

A senior Iraqi
official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the
topic, said he doubts Maliki would press for the agreement to be
approved by parliament if his cabinet doesn't agree to its terms.
Maliki asked that officials submit their objections to the agreement in
writing by Wednesday afternoon.

The cabinet is the second
government group to object to the agreement. The country's Political
Council for National Security also couldn't come to a decision. Both
groups include representatives from nearly all Iraq's political
parties. Neither, however, includes followers of radical Shiite cleric
Muqtada al Sadr, who wholly rejects the accord and has demanded that
U.S. troops leave now.

"He genuinely understands that there needs
to be an agreement," the official said of Maliki. "But he feels that he
has been passed a hot potato."

According to an official who was
present, Maliki made no effort to defend the agreement or to press for
its approval during the hours-long cabinet session where minister after
minister voiced objections to specific clauses. Only the Kurdish
alliance endorsed the latest draft.

The agreement has changed
significantly in the favor of the Iraqi government during the
months-long negotiations, which Americans began by asking for hundreds
of bases inside the country and immunity from Iraqi laws for both
American troops and private security contractors.

Those requests
were pared down. The current agreement calls for the Americans to leave
Iraqi cities by June 30 and to be gone from the country by the end of
2011. American troops would be immune from prosecution by Iraqi
authorities as long as they were on duty, but private contractors would
be subject to Iraqi law.

Nancy A. Youssef in Washington contributed to this article.

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