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U.S., Iraq Scale Down Negotiations Over Forces

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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