BAGHDAD - A proposed U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that would set the conditions for a defense alliance and long-term U.S. troop presence appears increasingly in trouble, facing growing resistance from the Iraqi government, bipartisan opposition in Congress and strong questioning from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
President Bush is trying to finish the agreement before he leaves office, and senior U.S. officials insist publicly that the negotiations can be completed by a July 31 target date. The U.S. is apparently scaling back some of its demands, including backing off one that particularly incenses Iraqis, blanket immunity for private security contractors.
But meeting the July 31 deadline seems increasing doubtful, and in Baghdad and Washington there is growing speculation that a United Nations mandate for U.S.-led military operations in Iraq may have to be renewed after it expires at the end of 2008.
On Capitol Hill, top Democrats and Republicans complain that Bush is rushing the negotiations to try to tie his successor's hands.
Six senators, including the chairmen of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees and their ranking minority members have written Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the past week asking for transparency in the negotiations and more briefings. White House, State Department and Pentagon officials briefed lawmakers and staff members on the talks Tuesday.
"There's a tremendous amount of concern up here about the state of these negotiations. ... It's been expressed repeatedly," said a senior congressional staffer, who requested anonymity. He noted that their appeared to be growing talk in Iraq of simply extending the U.N. mandate.
A spokesman for Obama (D-Ill) said any long-term U.S. security commitment to Iraq must be subject to Congressional approval; alternatively the administration should seek an extension of the current UN mandate. Obama wants a new administration to make it "absolutely clear that the United States will not maintain permanent bases in Iraq," said spokesman Bill Burton.
Some Iraqi parliamentarians are now saying that Iraq has a third option besides extending the U.N. mandate or agreeing to the proposed Status of Forces Agreement: telling the Americans to go home.
"By December Iraq has to decide what to do," said Sami al Askari, a Shiite lawmaker who is close to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. "If we are put in a corner...we have three options, not just two." Askari said the U.S. side is "keen to sign it early" but has to be "realistic and deal with the issues that are very sensitive for the Iraqis."
On Tuesday, Ambassador David Satterfield, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's top advisor on Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad that both the Iraqis and Americans were on track to agree and that the U.S. was respecting Iraq's sovereignty during negotiations.
"We're confident it can be achieved, and by the end of July deadline," Satterfield said. "It's doable, that's where our focus is, not on alternatives...We're focused on plan A because we believe plan A can succeed."
He spoke less than 24 hours after an unnamed senior U.S. official told the Associated Press that the deal may not be completed before Bush leaves office next January. Satterfield bristled when questioned about the "unnamed official" and insisted that the talks were on track for completion July 31.
Iraqi lawmakers say the Bush administration is demanding concessions that are unacceptable, among them: dozens of semi-permanent bases from which U.S. forces can launch missions with no prior consent from Iraq's government; complete immunity for U.S. troops and security contractors; control of Iraq's air space; and no guarantees the United States will defend Iraq against a foreign attack.
The United States has portrayed opposition to the agreement as limited to Iranian officials and followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who opposes the U.S. occupation. But the chorus of rejection is growing.
"There is only one agenda for us-we need foreign troops because our forces are not capable yet to defend Iraq inside and outside of Iraq," al Askari said. But when Iraq reaches the point it can defend itself, "That's it, no more foreign troops on our soil," he added.
"It seems from the draft (agreement) and from the discussions that the Americans have something else in their mind, for instance fighting Al Qaida or terrorism. That's why they want a free hand in arresting any Iraqi. But the Iraqis say, 'no you don't have the free hand'."
In interviews this week, majority Shiite legislators told McClatchy Newspapers that the U.S.-proposed draft agreement is unacceptable and, given the way negotiations are going, they did not see them being complete by July 31.
The majority of Iraqi politicians support some kind of security agreement with the United States and the presence of some U.S. forces, although on their terms.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Iraq's government has reached the point of decision.
"Time is of the essence," he said. "There is a need for a clear political decision ... Either the Iraqis want this or they don't want it." Maliki signed a declaration of principles for the accord last November, Zebari noted. "It hasn't come out of a vacuum or out of the blue."
Iraq wants an agreement in which U.S. soldiers stay on bases outside of the cities; the United States does not control its air space; and acts only if Iraq asks for help.
Strobel reported from Washington.
© McClatchy Newspapers 2008