U.S., Iraq Remain Unresolved On Dates for U.S. Troop Pullout

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2008

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have agreed on most elements of a framework under which U.S. combat troops would withdraw from Iraqi cities sometime next year, but dates have not yet been settled and Iraqi political approval of the draft accord remains uncertain, according to Bush administration officials.

"What makes this complicated is that, until the whole package is done, it's not done," one official said, adding, "Yes, we have things on the table that we've agreed to," but they await high-level Iraq agreement that may be weeks away, if not longer.

Several officials close to the negotiations traced a long and potentially perilous path through Iraq's fractious political landscape that could delay the deal or derail certain elements. Once the text is finalized, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must gain approval from his multiparty executive and national security councils and his Council of Ministers.

"They are obviously going to be extremely attentive not just to the substance but also to the presentation," another official said.

Finally, the accord must be voted on by the Iraqi parliament, which recessed last week for a month.

Over the past several days, U.S. officials have grown increasingly anxious as Iraqis from various political factions have told reporters that ironclad agreements have been reached to pull troops from population centers, including Baghdad, as early as June.

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who maintains strong support in parts of Baghdad and in southern Iraq, has ordered most of his anti-American militia to stand down. The militia would end all resistance, a Sadr spokesman said Friday, if the United States would agree to a definite timetable for the departure of all U.S. troops.

The Bush administration has opposed such a timetable but has bowed to Iraqi demands for target dates. Officials on both sides said dates will be couched in language that allows the withdrawal to speed up or slow down, depending on conditions on the ground.

Rather than include a specific U.S. promise to pull out, the wording is more likely to express that both sides are working toward transitioning the U.S. mission from front-line combat to support for Iraqi security forces, and will estimate a date when that transition may be accomplished.

But much will depend on whether Maliki can sell that language as meeting widespread Iraqi political demands for departure, and his own public stance that all combat troops should leave by the end of 2010.

Similar pitfalls exist on sensitive issues such as legal jurisdiction over U.S. government personnel. One U.S. official said the Iraqis "have granted us exclusive jurisdiction for U.S. troops and DOD [Defense Department] employees. The Iraqis can bring forward any concerns on any cases, and we may decide to let them handle it," particularly those involving alleged crimes that occur outside official duties or U.S. installations. Such arrangements are standard in agreements with a number of countries that host a U.S. troop presence.

Other officials said agreement is not yet firm, and they are uncertain that language will fly politically. Iraq's insistence that its laws should prevail stems largely from the excesses of private U.S. security contractors, whom negotiators have agreed would be subject to Iraqi law.

The U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq expires at the end of this year. Negotiations on the bilateral arrangements to replace it began in March, with a completion target of July 31 that would have given the two governments time to gain political and popular approval and arrange logistics for the transition.

However, the window has narrowed considerably. Although the Iraqi parliament theoretically will reconvene at the beginning of September, that coincides with the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, when all work will slow. By early fall, the United States will be fixated on its presidential election on Nov. 4.

Officials agreed to discuss the bilateral talks only if their names were not used. They said that Maliki is primarily concerned with demonstrating to Iraqis that "things have changed," removing U.S. troops from visible involvement in their day-to-day lives. Arrangements in cities such as Baghdad and Baqubah, where U.S. troops still maintain neighborhood bases, checkpoints and regular patrols, would be similar to those in Anbar province, one of 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces that have been officially returned to Iraqi security control.

Most combat troops in Anbar have been withdrawn to the U.S. base outside Fallujah, where they are available to assist Iraqi forces if needed. Even in places such as Anbar and Basra, U.S. military transition teams are deployed as advisers with Iraqi units. The teams are in direct contact with U.S. combat headquarters and can call in heavy support, as they did with aircraft during fighting in Basra last spring, as needed.

U.S. lawmakers of both parties have criticized the way the administration has handled the negotiations, with many insisting that any final text must be submitted to Congress for approval. The administration has argued that President Bush can sign it as an executive agreement.

Negotiators initially began with two separate agreements. The first, called a strategic framework, outlines long-term political, economic, cultural and security arrangements between the two countries. A second accord, a status-of-forces agreement, was to cover more specific rights and responsibilities of the U.S. military in Iraq. When negotiations over the status-of-forces agreement stalled in June, negotiators decided to attach it to the larger framework as an implementing memorandum on security arrangements.

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