Lacking an Accord On Troops, U.S. and Iraq Seek a Plan B

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 14, 2008

With time running out for the conclusion of an agreement governing American forces in Iraq, nervous negotiators have begun examining alternatives that would allow U.S. troops to stay beyond the Dec. 31 deadline, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.

Neither side finds the options attractive. One possibility is an extension of the United Nations mandate that expires at the end of the year. That would require a Security Council vote that both governments believe could be complicated by Russia or others opposed to the U.S.-led war. Another alternative would amount to a simple handshake agreement between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Bush to leave things as they are until a new deal, under a new U.S. administration, can be negotiated.

Negotiators have been stuck for months on the question of legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops and immunity for possible crimes. But even if the sides reach a deal in the next few days or weeks, it is not clear that a formal status-of-forces agreement could be approved by the end of the year. Maliki has pledged to submit an accord to Iraq's divided parliament before he signs it -- a promise he reaffirmed last week during a visit to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric. Sistani has said he will not endorse any document without the support of Iraq's population and political factions.

If the parliament refuses, Maliki would have "no choice" but to request a U.N. extension "because the American forces will lose their legal cover on Dec. 31," he told the Times of London in a weekend interview. "If that happens, according to international law, Iraqi law and American law, the U.S. forces will be confined to their bases and have to withdraw from Iraq," Maliki said.

U.S. officials do not dispute that the absence of an agreement would probably require an immediate end to combat operations and, at a minimum, confinement to bases on Jan. 1. Officials refused to discuss the sensitive issue on the record while negotiations are ongoing.

"I am actually reasonably optimistic we will come to closure on this in a very near future," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters Friday as he returned from a five-day trip to Europe. A month earlier, on Sept. 8, Gates told Congress that he expected an agreement "within the next few weeks."

"But I had hoped that some weeks ago," Gates added.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said yesterday that an accord is unlikely before the end of the year, citing the number of parties that must sign off on the deal. "I'm not sure that the time we have left is enough for all of these organizations to study it, revise it and agree on the text," Hashimi told McClatchy Newspapers.

Frustrated over what they consider Iraqi intransigence, administration officials have said Iranian meddling is keeping Shiite leaders from accommodating U.S. bottom lines. The government-sanctioned Iranian media have charged repeatedly that Washington is trying to force Maliki to sell out Iraqi sovereignty. Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, with a bloc of supporters in Iraq's parliament and a powerful militia currently under a cease-fire, has called for an immediate U.S. withdrawal.

Other Shiite political groups are divided over the deal, and some, including Maliki's Dawa party, disagree internally. But U.S. officials, uncertain of where Maliki really stands, tell themselves that ultimately he cannot afford for U.S. operations to shut down.

The U.S. military has repeatedly described security gains over the past year as "fragile" and "reversible." The main concerns, a senior officer said, are that the Sons of Iraq security forces -- largely Sunni groups now being paid by and under the control of the Maliki government -- will revert to insurgency and that "special groups" of Shiite militia members, tied to Iran, will relaunch an offensive in Baghdad and other population centers.

Maliki himself said Saturday that "a sudden withdrawal may harm security." But the game of chicken his government appears to be playing has continued as the U.S. election approaches. Any new administration, whether Republican or Democratic, would need to start negotiations from scratch, with different priorities on a possible withdrawal timeline and the ongoing mission for U.S. troops.

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