By Mary Beth Sheridan and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 20, 2008
BAGHDAD, Oct. 19 -- Key members of the Iraqi parliament's largest political bloc have called for all American troops to leave this country in 2011 as a condition for allowing the U.S. military to stay here beyond year's end, officials said Sunday.
The change sought by the influential United Iraqi Alliance would harden the withdrawal date for U.S. troops. A draft bilateral agreement completed this week would require American forces to leave by December 2011 but would allow for an extension by mutual agreement.
The Shiite bloc, which includes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party, also insists that Iraqi officials have a bigger role in determining whether U.S. soldiers accused of wrongdoing are subject to prosecution in Iraqi courts, said Sami al-Askeri, a political adviser to Maliki. That proposal has been resisted by the Pentagon.
If the Iraqi alliance's conditions are not met, "I cannot see that this agreement will see the light," said Askeri, who is also a lawmaker from Maliki's party.
It was not immediately clear whether the U.S. side would accept the changes to the draft agreement. The document would provide legal authority for American troops to remain in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31. If there is no accord or other legal cover for U.S. forces, they must leave.
The Bush administration has long resisted setting firm dates for the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, saying that the decision should be based on security conditions. U.S. authorities ultimately accepted a compromise, which set the 2011 withdrawal date but provided for an extension if Iraq requested one.
U.S. officials had regarded that provision as sufficient to deal with any surge of violence in a country where security remains fragile. While attacks have plummeted in the past year, insurgent groups are still active and U.S. military officials fear that unresolved political issues could re-ignite violence.
In Baghdad on Sunday, two improvised explosive devices blew up in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniya, leaving one person dead and 15 injured, police said. Near the northern city of Tikrit, gunmen killed a leader of the U.S.-allied security forces known as Sons of Iraq, police said.
The draft status-of-forces agreement was discussed Sunday night by the Iraqi Political Council for National Security, an advisory body of senior executive, legislative and judicial officials. If the council gives it the green light, the accord will be sent to the cabinet and parliament for approval.
In the meeting, Iraq's defense and interior ministers told colleagues that the security forces created since the fall of Saddam Hussein are still incapable of defending the country, according to presidential spokesman Nasir al-Ani.
The ministers said Iraq's security forces "still have no air cover and don't have the ability to suppress any attacks" from foreign countries, Ani told Iraq's al-Sharqiya television. The council is expected to continue to meet about the agreement, officials said.
U.S. military trainers have said the Iraqi forces still lack logistical, intelligence and other capabilities.
Mahmoud Othman, a lawmaker from the Kurdish bloc, the second-biggest in parliament, said the escalation in demands by the Shiite alliance could represent politicians' desire to position themselves before provincial elections expected in the next few months. Many Iraqis resent the American presence, seeing it as a violation of the country's sovereignty.
Another factor is that politicians "are trying to buy time," he said. "Some are thinking to delay until the next administration" that emerges from the U.S. presidential election, he added.
The United Iraqi Alliance met Saturday night with Maliki to discuss the draft accord. The alliance said in a statement that there were "positive items" in the accord but that it needed more time to discuss other aspects that "need an amendment."
The statement did not elaborate. But two members of the alliance said others were wary of language that would permit an extension of the U.S. presence beyond 2011, the lawmakers said.
"Some people say, what's going on?" Askeri said. "This article opens the door to the next government" of Iraq to lengthen the U.S. troops' stay, he said. Iraq is scheduled to hold national elections next year.
The accord also would require U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities to their bases by June 30, 2009.
On the question of legal jurisdiction, one of the thorniest issues in the negotiations, the draft accord says that American soldiers can be subject to Iraqi law if they are accused of committing a major crime while outside their bases and off-duty. American troops rarely leave their bases except on official missions, so it would appear that soldiers would seldom, if ever, face Iraqi courts.
Askeri said Iraqi lawmakers were unhappy with the idea that U.S. military authorities would determine when forces were considered off-duty. "We expect, if any problem will be committed by any soldier, he will be defended by his colleagues. They'll say he was doing his job, and [the crime] was not deliberate," Askeri said.
That decision should instead be made by a joint committee, and if there is a deadlock, it should go to an Iraqi court, he said.
The Pentagon insists on having sole legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops in most foreign countries. Some U.S. lawmakers have objected to even the limited compromise agreed to so far by American negotiators.
Askeri said the fate of the accord was "now up to the Americans." He added: "If they show the civility, if they will remove the articles or phrases, I think there is a big chance we can agree on this and send it to parliament."
A second lawmaker in the United Iraqi Alliance said in a telephone interview he wanted two additional concessions from the United States. Muhammad al-Haydari, who heads a group of independents in the Shiite bloc, said that U.S. authorities should provide the Baghdad government with information on all Iraqis working on American bases.
In addition, he said, Iraq should have the right to search U.S. military shipments to ensure they do "not include any weapons of mass destruction that could threaten Iraq's neighbors in the future."
He did not elaborate, but neighboring Iran has strongly opposed the U.S. presence in Iraq, arguing that it could be used to launch a cross-border attack.
The United Iraqi Alliance includes politicians close to Shiite-dominated Iran. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said recently that Iran was conducting a "full-court press" to torpedo the agreement, and that intelligence reports indicated Iranians were trying to bribe Iraqi lawmakers. Maliki indignantly denied the charge. The concerns voiced by Shiite lawmakers represent a significant stumbling block in what many U.S. and Iraqi officials anticipate will be a contentious process that could take weeks -- if it succeeds at all.
"We continue to be in discussion with the Iraqis and the Iraqis continue to discuss this amongst themselves," said Susan Ziadeh, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "That's to be expected. We'll see where these discussions lead."
Maliki postponed a visit Tuesday to Australia because of the intense discussions on the security agreement, his office said.
Lawmakers aligned with Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are the most vocal critics of any agreement that would extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. They control 30 seats in the 275-seat parliament, while the Shiite bloc has 85. Thousands of Sadr's supporters marched in a demonstration in Baghdad on Saturday to denounce the accord.
The Kurdish bloc, which has 54 seats, supports a deal. Leaders of Sunni groups have not publicly expressed a strong opinion for or against the proposed agreement, saying they need time to examine it.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.