By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefed senior lawmakers yesterday on a draft agreement that covers U.S. forces in Iraq, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prepared to submit the document to its first political test in Baghdad.
U.S. negotiators in Iraq, along with Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander there, will go over the text of the proposed accord with senior Senate and House aides this morning in a video conference at the White House. Congressional attendance has been limited to 12 people from the leadership and the two relevant committees in the House and Senate.
"This is not yet a final document," Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.
Movement on the agreement, after seven months of often-torturous negotiations, follows a tentative compromise on the thorniest outstanding issue -- legal jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel accused of crimes in Iraq. According to several officials with indirect knowledge of the draft, U.S. jurisdiction will prevail except in the most serious cases involving acts committed off-duty and outside the confines of U.S. bases.
One source said that in the case of an allegedly premeditated crime, Iraqi jurisdiction would be considered, although the United States would have the final decision in all circumstances.
Since U.S. soldiers rarely, if ever, leave their bases except on military operations in Iraq, situations in such circumstances are seen as unlikely.
U.S. officials appeared unsure whether the terms agreed upon by negotiators would gain approval from Iraqi political and religious leaders -- who have insisted publicly on absolute sovereignty -- before the current United Nations mandate expires on Dec. 31. Without a signed bilateral agreement, U.S. troops will lack the legal authority to remain in Iraq. Officials have said they would have to cease operations and confine troops to bases unless some other arrangement, such as an extension of the U.N. mandate, could be worked out.
The draft is to be presented today to Iraq's political and national security council, which is made up of top government officials and the leaders of major political groups. If it survives challenges there and among other government ministers, it will move to the Council of Representatives, or parliament, where Maliki has pledged to put it to an up-or-down vote.
Far less controversial matters have taken months to move through the Iraqi legislative process, if they moved at all.
Some Iraqi political and religious leaders are already on record opposing other, previously agreed upon portions of the draft, including a 2011 withdrawal date for U.S. troops. The Bush administration has said that such dates are "aspirational," depending on ground conditions. Maliki has described them as firm, and political opponents such as Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have demanded an immediate U.S. withdrawal.
None of the actual draft wording has yet been made public or unveiled to Congress, where additional objections have been voiced. In a statement Wednesday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said he could not conceive of any surrender of jurisdiction over U.S. troops, no matter how limited, to the Iraqi legal system.
Gates spoke by telephone yesterday with Levin, who is in Michigan during the congressional recess. Levin's chief of staff, David Lyles, said the senator would have no comment on the draft until after it was explained in detail at today's White House briefing.
Morrell, the Pentagon spokesman, said Gates was committed to the protection of U.S. troops and "would not be pushing this if he didn't believe it did the job."
In a separate telephone conversation, Rice briefed Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who was in Los Angeles. "She described where the agreement is, and he said he looked forward to seeing the text," said Antony Blinken, staff director for the committee.
Rice also spoke with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the committee's ranking minority member. Gates and Rice were scheduled yesterday to speak with the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees.