By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
BAGHDAD, Oct. 21 -- The Iraqi cabinet called Tuesday for reopening negotiations over a draft agreement to keep U.S. forces in this country beyond 2008, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates immediately expressed "great reluctance" about more talks.
The apparent stalemate comes just 10 weeks before the expiration of the United Nations mandate that authorizes the presence of the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Without a new legal agreement, "we basically stop doing anything" in the country, Gates told news service reporters in Washington.
U.S. officials assert that Iraq is moving toward stability, after five years of violence that has taken the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 4,180 Americans. But while attacks have dropped significantly in the past year, insurgent groups are still active and political tensions are raw.
U.S. officials say the Iraqi security forces they have helped rebuild since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 are still too fragile to maintain security in the country. "There is great potential for losses of significant consequence" if an agreement is not reached, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a trip in Europe.
U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have labored for seven months on the status-of-forces agreement. It would extend the American troop presence until the end of 2011 and give Iraqis more control over military operations here. But the accord was immediately criticized as an undermining of Iraqi sovereignty in this strongly nationalist country. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not spoken publicly in support of it and has told colleagues it needs changes, officials say.
The most serious public challenge to the agreement emerged Tuesday in a meeting of the Iraqi cabinet. The ministers "unanimously agreed that there are necessary amendments which need to be made . . . to raise the agreement to a nationally acceptable level," according to a statement by government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. The statement did not specify what changes were sought. But one of the participants in the meeting said in an interview that Maliki himself told the cabinet that the accord did not pass muster.
"He made observations on the need for further changes, because he wants to market it" publicly, the participant said. He added that the prime minister said the accord "would be difficult, as it stands, to pass through parliament."
The participant spoke on the condition of anonymity because internal cabinet deliberations are considered private. Maliki has sought backing for the accord from his cabinet and an advisory council before submitting it to parliament. American officials say it does not need approval by the U.S. Congress.
Dabbagh, the spokesman, said ministers were asked to submit the amendments they wanted "in order for them to be included in the negotiations with the American side." He did not respond to telephone calls seeking clarification on the proposed changes and Maliki's views.
But a second participant in the cabinet meeting said the objections raised involved "many articles." One of them dealt with the sensitive issue of legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops in Iraq, he said, also speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon insists on maintaining jurisdiction over its troops around the world. But, in what U.S. officials viewed as concession to the Iraqi government, they agreed in the draft accord to allow Iraqi courts to try soldiers who commit serious crimes while off-duty and outside their bases. The draft gives the United States responsibility for determining whether a soldier is off-duty.
Few American soldiers would ever face an Iraqi judge because they rarely leave their bases when not on official missions.
Gates told reporters for the Reuters and Agence France-Presse news services that the United States believed that the talks were near an end. "There is great reluctance to engage further in the drafting process," he said. "I don't think you slam the door shut, but I would say it's pretty far closed."
He expressed hope, however, that the different Iraqi positions would balance each other out and that the agreement would move forward.
The accord has been controversial in Iraq, where many people have been deeply critical of the continuing U.S. military presence. Provincial and national elections are expected next year, making politicians wary of taking pro-American stands. Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a rival of Maliki's who has a large following among the country's majority Shiites, has led protests against the accord, insisting on an immediate U.S. pullout.
Maliki has said that if the status-of-forces agreement with the United States does not pass by Dec. 31, he could seek an extension of the U.N. mandate. But Russia or other countries could oppose that move in a Security Council vote.
The cabinet's cool reaction to the draft agreement came just days after key members of Maliki's Shiite parliamentary bloc raised objections to it.
They called for a firm withdrawal date for all U.S. troops at the end of 2011, instead of current language that would permit American forces to stay under mutual agreement.
On Tuesday, police and army officials in Diyala province said U.S. military forces opened fire Monday night on a minibus, killing five people and wounding two. U.S. military officials denied the account, saying a military vehicle was involved in a head-on collision with a civilian vehicle, leaving five Iraqis dead.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and a special correspondent in Diyala contributed to this report.