Key Iraqi Leaders Deliver Setbacks to U.S.

Supporters of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protest in Baghdad against a U.S-Iraqi security pact.
Supporters of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr protest in Baghdad against a U.S-Iraqi security pact. (By Karim Kadim -- Associated Press)
By Amit R. Paley and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 14, 2008

BAGHDAD, June 13 -- The Bush administration's Iraq policy suffered two major setbacks Friday when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki publicly rejected key U.S. terms for an ongoing military presence and anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a new militia offensive against U.S. forces.

During a visit to Jordan, Maliki said negotiations over initial U.S. proposals for bilateral political and military agreements had "reached a dead end." While he said talks would continue, his comments fueled doubts that the pacts could be reached this year, before the Dec. 31 expiration of a United Nations mandate sanctioning the U.S. role in Iraq.

The moves by two of Iraq's most powerful Shiite leaders underscore how the presence of U.S. troops has become a central issue for Iraqi politicians as they position themselves for provincial elections later this year. Iraqis across the political spectrum have grown intolerant of the U.S. presence, but the dominant Shiite parties -- including Maliki's Dawa party -- are especially fearful of an electoral challenge from new, grass-roots groups.

"All the politicians are trying to prove that they care more about Iraqis than they do about Americans -- otherwise they know the people and the voters will not support them," said Ala Maaki, a senior lawmaker with Iraqi's largest Sunni political party. "I think we could see al-Maliki and Moqtada Sadr trying to one-up the other today and see who can take the strongest stand against the Americans."

As the controversy over U.S. troops grew in the region, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari scheduled the first high-level Iraqi government contacts with the two U.S. presidential contenders. Zebari will meet privately Sunday with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- who supports administration policy -- and hold a telephone conference Monday with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who has said he would withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq.

Maliki's comments came as Sadr called for a new armed wing of his Mahdi Army militia to fight U.S. troops. Sadr had ordered the militia to cease carrying weapons last August -- a leading factor in the recent decline in violence -- although U.S. military officials have asserted that renegade militia units have continued the fight under instructions from Iran.

Sadr aides, some of whom appeared surprised by the cleric's announcement, said he wanted to issue the order now to avoid seeming as if he was responding to a U.S.-Iraqi agreement if one is reached by the July deadline.

Salah al-Obaidi, Sadr's chief spokesman, said the order was essentially a full-scale reorganization of the Mahdi Army, transforming it from a militia into a permanent peaceful organization with a small armed wing of several hundred or so members. He said the cease-fire for the rest of the movement would remain in force.

The new group, Sadr's statement said, would operate in "total secrecy" and attack only American forces. "The resistance will be restricted to a group authorized by a written letter from us soon," it said. "Arms will be restricted to them and they may only point them towards the occupier."

Bilateral negotiations began in March over two U.S.-drafted accords: a status-of-forces agreement, or SOFA, governing legal protections and responsibilities of U.S. troops, and a "strategic framework" of the overall U.S.-Iraq political and military relationship. Iraq has rejected allowing unilateral U.S. authority to conduct military operations and control nearly 60 bases, and to arrest and detain Iraqi citizens. Other provisions would have given the United States control over Iraqi airspace and borders and granted immunity to U.S. troops and civilian security contractors from Iraqi laws and prosecution.

Bush administration negotiators have since revised some of the provisions of the SOFA, agreeing to high-level coordination of military and arrest operations, fine-tuning the extent of U.S. operational control of airspace and borders, and proposing that immunity for contractors be granted only for actions taken during official U.S. operations.

Speaking to reporters in Amman, Jordan's capital, Maliki indicated that the proposed compromise on immunity for contractors was insufficient. "We could not give amnesty to a soldier carrying arms on our ground," he said. "We will never give it."

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