BAGHDAD - Time's running out for reaching a security agreement with the U.S., and an accord is unlikely before the end of this year, Iraq's Sunni Muslim vice president said Monday.
The United Nations mandate that authorizes the U.S. military presence in Iraq will expire on Dec. 31 and without a so-called status of forces agreement, it's questionable whether the U.S. will have a legitimate right to maintain its troops in Iraq, Vice President Tariq al Hashimi told McClatchy.
Hashimi also expressed strong concern that the improved security situation in Iraq could deteriorate just as the U.N. mandate runs out.
Hashimi's statement on the agreement contradicted more upbeat comments from Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte during a recent visit to Iraq and from Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, who's said that a deal is close.
Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said in an interview with the London Times newspaper Monday that if there was no agreement and no renewal of the U.N. mandate, "the U.S. forces will be confined to their bases and have to withdraw from Iraq." But he added that "a sudden withdrawal may harm security."
Susan Ziadeh, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, said the talks are still under way. "Both sides are working hard to come to an agreement, and we should leave the discussions to those who are negotiating," she said.
However, Hashimi said that even if the two negotiating teams can agree on a final text, the draft must then win the approval of Iraq's cabinet, a special political council for national security and the parliament. "I'm not sure that the time we have left is enough for all of these organizations to study it, revise it and agree on the text," he said.
The main point of contention is jurisdiction. Maliki has been pressing for jurisdiction to prosecute U.S. troops when they aren't on their bases, which the U.S. has so far refused to permit.
"The impression of the Iraqi people is that American troops from time to time exaggerate their reactions, use excessive force and irresponsible behavior," Hashimi said. "We would like to put an end to that. When this happens in the future there must be prosecution of those who are exceeding the limit of the authorities given to them."
The U.S. government has said that the mandate must be renewed if no agreement is reached, or U.S. forces will withdraw, Hashimi said. But it takes time to pull out more 130,000 troops, presenting a new problem about who'd have jurisdiction during a technically illegal occupation.
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Hashimi also warned that the security situation could worsen by the end if 2008, due to upcoming provincial elections and an unsure future for a U.S. sponsored mostly Sunni paramilitary groups
Among the signs of increased violence is that al Qaida in Iraq, whose attacks dropped over the past year, is growing stronger as frustrations in the Sunni community fester, he said. That's mostly due to the Iraqi government's reluctance to absorb the more than 100,000-strong U.S. sponsored mostly Sunni paramilitary into government jobs and the Iraqi Security Forces, he said.
Senior officials in the Shiite-led government seem to have a sectarian agenda as they deal with the embattled Sons of Iraq or Awakening councils, mostly former Sunni insurgents that are or were being paid by the U.S. military, with a sectarian agenda, he said. If it fails, sectarian violence will once again envelop Iraq.
"People are not tolerating that the Iraqi government is not rewarding those groups," he said. "In fact, after all the sacrifices they have suffered, this is a really risky and highly dangerous attitude," he said.
There was a slight uptick in violence in September, and assassinations seem to be on the rise with weapons equipped with silencers and magnetic bombs attached to people's cars.
Hashimi cited violence in Mosul and a perceived targeting of Sunnis by Shiite-dominated security forces in Diyala and Basra as signs of changes for the worse. His party members in the southern city of Basra were being detained based on testimony by secret witnesses, and the judiciary system was sectarian, he said.
"We expect it will be a tough election this time," he said. "We do have a problem. Iraq is not going to survive if we don't get rid of sectarian behavior."
If the agreement between the two nations isn't completed by the end of the year and Iraq doesn't request a renewal of the mandate, Iraq may be faced with a hasty withdrawal of American troops.
"I have a lot of concern about the future," he said.