By Mary Beth Sheridan and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
BAGHDAD, Oct. 28 -- The Iraqi cabinet decided Tuesday to reopen negotiations on a security pact intended to give U.S. forces the legal authority to stay in the country beyond Dec. 31, further delaying an agreement that American officials had hoped to conclude by now.
The call for changes in the proposed accord came as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki criticized an attack by Iraq-based U.S. forces on alleged al-Qaeda operatives inside Syria last weekend. The cabinet now wants the agreement to include language to "confirm that Iraqi land would not be the center for aggression" against its neighbors, said Planning Minister Ali Baban, who attended Tuesday's meeting.
Ministers also want the pact to grant Iraq more legal authority over U.S. soldiers accused of crimes, to harden a tentative 2011 departure date for U.S. troops and to allow Iraqi inspection of U.S. military shipments. The inspection demand, along with an explicit ban on attacks on neighboring countries, reflects concerns that the United States might launch an attack on Iran from Iraqi territory.
Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that the current text of the document, concluded just weeks ago after nearly eight months of difficult negotiations, reflects the limit of U.S. concessions. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that the administration had not yet examined the new Iraqi proposals but that the bar for changes was "very high."
"We think that the door is pretty much shut on these negotiations," Perino said. The bilateral agreement would replace a U.N. mandate that expires at the end of this year. Failure to conclude the deal by then would put the next U.S. administration in charge of further negotiations with Iraq.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the cabinet's demands were necessary to preserve "Iraq's sovereignty and its most important interests," although it was unclear whether the Iraqi side would be satisfied with minor language changes or would insist on more substantive alterations. The cabinet, representing Iraq's largest political groups, must approve the document before it can be sent to parliament for a vote.
Asked what would happen if the United States rejected the demands, Baban said, "We will discuss it again, inside the cabinet." So far, only the Kurdish parties, who make up the second-biggest bloc in the 275-member parliament, have expressed support for the accord. Shiite parties contesting control of provincial councils in elections scheduled for January -- including Maliki's Dawa party -- have not committed themselves, and Maliki has not taken a public stand on the agreement.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, has personally informed Iraqi officials that without bilateral legal authority, U.S. military operations here would virtually cease Jan. 1. Troops would be confined to their bases, and intelligence sharing and training of Iraqi security forces would stop.
In a related development, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Hamid al-Bayati, said that if the two governments fail to complete the agreement and Iraq decides to seek an extension of the current U.N. mandate, it will not ask for any changes in its terms.
The mandate, first approved in 2004, is under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes one or more U.N. members to use armed force in another member's country when there are "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression." It has been annually extended at Iraq's request.
Last December, when Maliki asked for another year, he said it would be Iraq's "final" request. Iraq expected, he said, that "in the future . . . the [U.N.] Security Council will be able to deal with the situation in Iraq without the need for action under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations."
Iraqis consider the U.N. mandate, which effectively gives foreign governments complete control over their own forces and operations in Iraq, an abdication of national sovereignty that should be ended. Maliki and other senior officials have said that any extension of the mandate would be outside Chapter VII and negotiated on Iraq's terms.
But Bayati, Iraq's U.N. ambassador, acknowledged in an interview this week that there is no precedent for the U.N.-authorized use of armed force outside Chapter VII.
"I don't think we can have it under any other chapter," Bayati said. The U.N. provision is the only one providing legal protections and authorities for military action. "I don't think any of the countries with forces in Iraq would be ready to have it under any other," he said. "It doesn't give them authority to fight."
Any attempt to alter the terms of the current Security Council resolution, Bayati said, would delay its approval and risk missing the Dec. 31 deadline. He said he remained optimistic that the bilateral agreement would be approved in time but added that a simple Chapter VII extension could be drafted and voted by the Council within a two-week period.
While Bayati acknowledged that continuation of the current U.N. mandate would encounter the same political difficulty as the bilateral U.S. deal, he said that it would include provisions for a review by the Security Council in six months.
"It is salable," he said.
DeYoung reported from Washington. Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.