By Amit R. Paley and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
BAGHDAD, June 10 -- High-level negotiations over the future role of the U.S. military in Iraq have turned into an increasingly acrimonious public debate, with Iraqi politicians denouncing what they say are U.S. demands to maintain nearly 60 bases in their country indefinitely.
Top Iraqi officials are calling for a radical reduction of the U.S. military's role here after the U.N. mandate authorizing its presence expires at the end of this year. Encouraged by recent Iraqi military successes, government officials have said that the United States should agree to confine American troops to military bases unless the Iraqis ask for their assistance, with some saying Iraq might be better off without them.
"The Americans are making demands that would lead to the colonization of Iraq," said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shiite politician on parliament's foreign relations committee who is close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "If we can't reach a fair agreement, many people think we should say, 'Goodbye, U.S. troops. We don't need you here anymore.' "
Congress has grown increasingly restive over the negotiations, which would produce a status of forces agreement setting out the legal rights and responsibilities of U.S. troops in Iraq and a broader "security framework" defining the political and military relationship between the two countries. Senior lawmakers of both parties have demanded more information and questioned the Bush administration's insistence that no legislative approval is required.
In Iraq, the willingness to consider calling for the departure of American troops represents a major shift for members of the U.S.-backed government. Maliki this week visited Iran, where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, urged him to reject any long-term security arrangements with the United States.
Failing to reach agreements this year authorizing the future presence of American forces in Iraq would be a strategic setback for the Bush administration, which says that such a presence is essential to promoting stability. Absent the agreements or the extension of the U.N. mandate, U.S. troops would have no legal basis to remain in Iraq.
President Bush has spoken directly to Maliki about the issue in recent days and instructed his negotiating team to show greater flexibility, Iraqi politicians said. U.S. officials circulated a draft of the status of forces agreement over the weekend without many of the most controversial demands, buoying hopes that a deal could be reached, according to Iraq lawmakers.
David M. Satterfield, the State Department's top adviser on Iraq, said he is confident the pacts can be finalized in July, a deadline that Bush and Maliki endorsed last year. "It's doable," he told reporters in Baghdad. "We think it's an achievable goal."
U.S. officials have refused to publicly discuss details of the negotiations. But Iraqi politicians have become more open in their descriptions of the talks, stoking popular anger at American demands that Iraqis across the political spectrum view as a form of continued occupation.
"What the U.S. wants is to take the current status quo and try to regulate it in a new agreement. And what we want is greater respect for Iraqi sovereignty," said Haider al-Abadi, a parliament member from Maliki's Dawa party. "Signing the agreement would mean that the Iraqi government had given up its sovereignty by its own consent. And that will never happen."
Iraqi officials plan to present the status of forces document and the security framework to parliament as a single agreement.
In a news conference in the heavily fortified Green Zone, Satterfield repeated several times that the U.S. goal is to create a more independent Iraq. "We want to see Iraqi sovereignty strengthened, not weakened," he said.
Abadi and other Iraqi officials said that assertion is undercut by the U.S. request to maintain 58 long-term bases in Iraq. The Americans originally pushed for more than 200 facilities across the country, according to Hadi al-Amiri, a powerful lawmaker who is the head of the Badr Organization, the former armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the country's largest Shiite political party.
Iraqi officials said the U.S. government also demanded the continuation of several current policies: authority to detain and hold Iraqis without turning them over to the Iraqi judicial system, immunity from Iraqi prosecution for both U.S. troops and private contractors, and the prerogative for U.S. forces to conduct operations without approval from the Iraqi government.
The American negotiators also called for continued control over Iraqi airspace and the right to refuel planes in the air, according to Askari, positions he said added to concerns that the United States was preparing to use Iraq as a base to attack Iran.
"We rejected the whole thing from the beginning," said Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a senior lawmaker from the Supreme Council. "In my point of view, it would just be a new occupation with an Iraqi signature."
If the talks collapse, several Iraqi officials said, they would request another one-year extension of the U.N. mandate. But Iraqi officials said they would also ask for modifications to the mandate similar to those they are seeking in the current negotiations.
"All the same issues would then be transferred to the talks with the U.N. Security Council," Abadi said.
Assuming that violence in Iraq will continue to decrease, politicians such as Saghir have begun discussing another option: asking the U.S. military to leave Iraq.
"Maybe the Iraqi government will say: 'Hey, the security situation is better. We don't need any more troops in Iraq,' " he said. "Or we could have a pledge of honor where the American troops leave but come back and protect Iraq if there is any aggression."
The Iraqi government is also upset because it wants the United Nations to lift its Chapter 7 designation of Iraq as a threat to international security, which dates from Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iraqi officials said the United States will not commit to supporting the removal of the label -- a position the Iraqis call an inappropriate bargaining tactic.
U.S. negotiators also said the agreements would not obligate the American military to protect Iraq from foreign aggression, Iraqi officials said, a promise they believe was a fundamental part of a declaration of principles signed by Bush and Maliki last winter.
"The prime minister is not happy about this," said Askari, who helped negotiate the declaration of principles, which outlined the strategic framework. "This is not what we agreed on."
Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of parliament who has been briefed on the negotiations, said the Americans recently had changed their position on four key issues: Private contractors would no longer be guaranteed immunity; detainees would be turned over to the Iraqi judicial system after combat operations; U.S. troops would operate only with the agreement of the Iraqi government; and the Americans would promise not to use Iraq as a base for attacking other countries.
"Now the American position is much more positive and more flexible than before," said Mohammed Hamoud, an Iraqi deputy foreign minister who is a lead negotiator in the talks.
In Washington, the White House hastily organized a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday after Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), the chairman and ranking minority member of the Armed Services Committee, respectively, demanded Monday that the administration "be more transparent with Congress, with greater consultation, about the progress and content of these deliberations."
In a letter Monday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Levin and Warner wrote that Congress, "in exercising its constitutional responsibilities, has legitimate concerns about the authorities, protections and understandings that might be made" in the agreements.
Although they have questioned the status of forces agreement's contents, lawmakers have not raised the issue of its congressional ratification.
The United States is a party to more than 80 such bilateral agreements in countries where American forces are stationed, but its proposals for the Iraq accord far exceed the terms of any of the others. Such agreements are traditionally signed by the U.S. president under his executive authority.
Although the administration has since said that the security framework is "nonbinding" and would not include any provisions for permanent bases or specific troop numbers, lawmakers charged that the White House was trying to tie the hands of Bush's successor and said the terms of the accord amounts to a defense treaty requiring congressional approval.
In a Senate hearing in April, a senior Defense Department lawyer acknowledged under questioning by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) that the Pentagon had no definition for the term "permanent base" and that it "doesn't really mean anything."
DeYoung reported from Washington.