By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
KUWAIT CITY, April 21 -- Iraq is resisting U.S. proposals for a pair of new bilateral security agreements, saying it expects Washington to compromise on "sensitive issues," including the right to imprison Iraqi citizens unilaterally, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Monday.
Other problematic areas now being negotiated, Zebari said in an interview, are provisions in U.S. drafts to give American contractors immunity from Iraqi law and allow the United States to conduct military operations without Iraqi government coordination. "These are the main ones, but there could be others," he said, among them "issues of sites, of locations, of access" by U.S. troops.
The Iraqi people "expect to see a change in the relationship on internment, and on some sovereignty issues," Zebari said. About 23,000 Iraqis are currently held in U.S. military prisons there.
Zebari spoke in Bahrain, where he was attending a meeting with Egypt, Jordan and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who also attended the meeting and had pressed the Arabs to invite Zebari, called the session a "good step toward reintegrating" Iraq into the Arab world.
The United States has been trying to persuade the leaders of predominantly Sunni Arab states to increase diplomatic and economic support for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. One goal is to counter the influence of Iran, whose government is overseen by Shiite clerics.
Many of those who attended the Bahrain gathering -- including Rice and Zebari -- then traveled to Kuwait for a regional meeting Tuesday on Iraq that is also to include representatives of the Group of Eight highly industrialized nations.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met here with Rice on Monday night, one day after she visited him in Baghdad.
The United States and Iraq are negotiating a status of forces agreement and a separate "strategic framework" to replace the existing U.N. mandate governing the U.S. troop presence. The mandate expires at the end of this year. A growing and bipartisan number of U.S. lawmakers have demanded that the Bush administration submit the agreements for congressional approval.
Democrats have charged that the Bush administration is attempting to tie the next administration to its military policy in Iraq. Republicans fear that President Bush's refusal to seek congressional ratification will compound public dissatisfaction with the war and become a negative campaign issue.
The White House has said that Bush can use his executive authority to sign the agreements and that they do not require congressional approval. He has pledged they will not include authorization for specific U.S. troop numbers or "permanent" military bases.
Zebari agreed that the accords would be nonbinding and said Iraq would also retain the ability to review and change them at any time. He said he expected the negotiations to be concluded by a July 31 deadline. "It's not going to be easy," Zebari said. "If you want to reach a final agreement, there has to be compromise."
Maliki's government, which has its own internal discord, has said that both accords will have to be ratified by the Iraqi parliament.
Zebari made clear that the Iraqi government is closely monitoring the U.S. election campaign and noted that none of the candidates is calling for "immediate disengagement." The campaign, he said, has also affected Arab willingness to increase involvement in Iraq.
Rice sent Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch to each of the Gulf Cooperation Council states in recent weeks -- Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar -- to persuade them to invite Iraq to the Monday meeting. His argument was that the recent Basra offensive targeting Shiite militias proved that Maliki's government was without sectarian bias.
During Monday's closed-door meeting of Arab foreign ministers, according to a U.S. official traveling with Rice, Zebari was asked why Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the only regional head of state to have visited Baghdad since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Zebari, the official said, replied that he was "embarrassed" by that fact, but that Arab governments had not accepted any invitations.
The U.S. official expressed satisfaction that Zebari was physically embraced by Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal upon entering the conference room and invited to remain in the meeting for discussions on Lebanon and the Palestinian-Israeli situation. "If they thought he was an Iranian agent, he would never have been allowed," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Khalifa acknowledged after the session that "we had questions about the ambiguity about the situation in Iraq."
Khalifa called Iraq's inclusion at the meeting an "important development" and said that Baghdad would continue to be invited as "an anchor of this group."
In the interview, Zebari said that Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have expressed interest in opening embassies but that none had made a definitive move.
"Really, we've removed all the excuses in terms of security and logistics," he said. "We've given them options outside the IZ," the International Zone, or Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government is located. "Or, if they prefer inside the IZ, we have evacuated a number of villas for them."
But the real reason for their reluctance, he said, was "not technical, not logistical, not security . . . it is political." Some of the countries, he said, harbor unhappiness over the U.S. invasion, although "they didn't shed any tears over Saddam's departure." More recently, "they always complain that there is extended Iranian influence."
"Our argument with them is that you have to blame yourselves," Zebari said. "They [the Iranians] are there and you're not there. A majority of the Iraqi people want to see you standing with them, beside them."
Asked about U.S. accusations that Iran supplies weapons and training for Shiite militias, Zebari said his government had raised the subject privately with Iranian leaders. "There hasn't been any public statement," he acknowledged, "but in discussions, in face-to-face bilaterals with the Iranians, yes, we do raise it . . . very seriously.
"They don't deny it, to be honest with you," he said. Unlike the Syrians, the Iranians respond that "there could be violations, here and there."