U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have abandoned efforts to conclude a comprehensive agreement governing the long-term status of U.S troops in Iraq before the end of the Bush presidency, according to senior U.S. officials, effectively leaving talks over an extended U.S. military presence there to the next administration.
In place of the formal status-of-forces agreement negotiators had hoped to complete by July 31, the two governments are now working on a "bridge" document, more limited in both time and scope, that would allow basic U.S. military operations to continue beyond the expiration of a U.N. mandate at the end of the year.
The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord -- blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept U.S. terms and the complexity of the task -- deals a blow to the Bush administration's plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years.
Although President Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, "we are talking about dates," acknowledged one U.S. official close to the negotiations. Iraqi political leaders "are all telling us the same thing. They need something like this in there. . . . Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever."
Unlike the status-of-forces agreements between the United States and countries such as South Korea and Japan, where large numbers of U.S. troops have been based for decades, the document now under discussion with Iraq is likely to cover only 2009. Negotiators expect it to include a "time horizon," with specific goals for U.S. troop withdrawal from Baghdad and other cities and installations such as the former Saddam Hussein palace that now houses the U.S. Embassy.
The fixed dates will likely include caveats referring to the ability of Iraqi security forces to take over from U.S. units, but without them, U.S. negotiators concluded that Iraqi acquiescence was doubtful. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his political allies have come under intense domestic pressure to reject any perceived infringement on Iraqi sovereignty. Maliki, who last week publicly insisted on a withdrawal timeline, wants to frame the agreement as outlining the terms for "Americans leaving Iraq" rather than the conditions under which they will stay, said the U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because U.S.-Iraqi negotiations are ongoing.
The idea, he said, is to "take the heat off [Maliki] a little bit, to rebrand the thing and counter the narrative that he's negotiating for a permanent military presence in Iraq."
The most contentious unresolved issue is the legal immunity of U.S. troops and Defense Department personnel from Iraqi prosecution for any alleged crime. "We're trying to come onto the same page," a second U.S. official close to the negotiations said. "But with U.S. forces in potential combat situations, we have some real bottom lines.
"But even on that question, it's one thing on immunity if in the Iraqi mind it's an agreement for U.S. troops forever," he said. "It's another thing if these immunity arrangements are temporary because U.S. forces are temporary."
Largely cosmetic compromises have been made on other difficult questions, such as the formation of joint U.S.-Iraqi commissions to oversee all unilateral U.S. combat and detainee operations and provide a veneer of Iraqi control. Washington has acquiesced to Iraqi refusal to grant immunity to private contractors, an issue that is controversial because of incidents in which American security contractors have killed Iraqi civilians.
U.S. and Iraqi officials also hope the new, bare-bones agreement -- called a "temporary operating protocol" in Washington and a "memorandum of understanding" in Baghdad -- will allow them to sidestep significant political roadblocks that have impeded completion of a broader agreement.
The status-of-forces negotiations have been sharply criticized by Democrats, and some Republicans, as an attempt to tie Bush's successor to the president's policy in Iraq. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, supports the administration position. He has said he hopes to bring U.S. combat troops home by 2013 but has insisted that any timeline or lessening of U.S. control over its own operations would undercut recent military gains and aid U.S. enemies.
Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), the presumptive Democratic nominee, has said he would immediately begin withdrawing combat troops at a rate of one or two brigades a month, a pledge he has softened recently by saying he would consult with U.S. commanders on the ground. But he has said that after 16 months in office, the U.S. presence in Iraq would be far smaller than the 144,000 troops there now, with only a "residual" number remaining.
Lawmakers have also objected to Bush's insistence that a status-of-forces agreement -- and a separate strategic framework outlining broad economic, political and security cooperation -- can be enacted with his signature alone and does not require congressional approval.
With some U.S. troops expected to remain in Iraq no matter who becomes president, administration officials said they anticipated that negotiations over a long-term status-of-forces agreement would continue. But with the end of the U.N. mandate looming, one official said, "we need a bridge which allows us to have some measure of authority to continue operations" after December.
Protest over the agreement has been far more vociferous in Iraq, where Maliki's government -- heading toward provincial elections this year and a parliamentary election in 2009 -- has been scrambling to show that it is reclaiming Iraqi sovereignty from the Americans. Just one month after discussions on the status-of-forces agreement began in March, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned in an interview that a U.S. draft was unacceptable.
In May, Iraqi and foreign media published U.S. negotiators' demands that one administration official now describes as "frankly unrealistic," including unilateral control over U.S. combat and detainee operations, immunity for U.S. personnel from Iraqi prosecution, and control over Iraqi airspace. Additional accounts outlined a list of 58 separate military installations that would remain under U.S. control.
Maliki's political competition, led by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, deemed the absence of a timeline a deal-breaker. Iraq's top Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, warned against any agreement that violated Iraqi sovereignty and was not approved by the Iraqi people.
In late May, Maliki told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the negotiating process "was not working," one U.S. official said. Beneath the public controversy over major issues, negotiators were locked in the minutiae of arrangements over things such as environmental regulations and license plates for U.S. vehicles -- standard items in formal status-of-forces agreements with other countries -- and "we weren't having the strategic level conversation we needed to be having," the official said.
Bush subsequently instructed U.S. negotiators to "be more flexible and open-minded," one official said. But it was becoming clear that the July 31 deadline for completion -- set to ensure a deal was in hand before the August Iraqi parliamentary recess, the month-long observance of Ramadan in September, and the final stretches of the U.S. presidential campaign -- would not be met.
"What we're doing now is more . . . a bridge to have the authority in place so we don't turn into a pumpkin on December 31," the official said. Neither country wants an extension of the U.N. mandate. Iraq has rejected its explicit limits on sovereignty, and the administration believes that a limited extension would only postpone the need for a bilateral accord and potentially leave U.S. troops with "our backs against the wall."
According to U.S. officials, Maliki also hopes that a temporary protocol would circumvent the full parliamentary review and two-thirds vote he has promised for a status-of-forces agreement. "He is trying to figure out, just as we did, how you can set up an agreement between the two and have it be legally binding," one official said, "but not go through the legislative body."
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