By Dan Eggen and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 30, 2008
A senior Iraqi political leader said yesterday he is "doubtful" that a bilateral agreement authorizing U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after the end of the year would be approved by the Iraqi cabinet and parliament.
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said most political factions in Iraq want the accord to go through. But he said the country is "in a situation of intellectual terrorism, where people are not able to state their real positions" for fear of appearing too close to the United States and of undercutting their standing in provincial elections scheduled for January.
"Personally, I'm doubtful it will pass," Barzani said, speaking through a translator, during a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors.
The assessment came amid growing signs of trouble in negotiations over a status-of-forces agreement, or SOFA, that would govern the U.S. military presence in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires Dec. 31. The process stalled again this week when the Iraqi cabinet decided to reopen negotiations and propose a series of amendments to the pact.
President Bush, who met with Barzani yesterday in the Oval Office, said he was "analyzing" the proposals and is optimistic that an agreement can be reached. "We obviously want to be helpful and constructive without undermining basic principles," Bush said. "And I remain very hopeful and confident that the SOFA will get passed."
But the mild encouragement from Bush came as other administration officials strongly suggested that a compromise is unlikely, increasing the possibility that the issue will become one of the first major challenges facing the next U.S. president.
The Iraqis have made several key demands, including granting Iraq more legal authority over U.S. troops accused of crimes; hardening a tentative 2011 departure date for American troops; and allowing Iraqi inspection of U.S. military shipments. After a controversial raid by U.S. forces into Syrian territory last weekend, the Iraqis also want an explicit ban on the United States staging attacks from Iraq into neighboring countries.
The Bush administration has repeatedly said that the current draft of the agreement is the furthest that the United States is willing to go. "The bar to any revisions is very high," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said the administration would listen to the Iraqi concerns but is reluctant to reopen negotiations. Instead, he said, the goal is to finalize the agreement before the end of the year.
"Otherwise, our guys are sitting there illegally," Morrell said. "The risk you run then is that the gains that have been made at great costs . . . will start to unravel."
Morrell said Iraqi political dynamics and Iranian interference are creating obstacles to the accord. "We have ample evidence that the Iranians are doing everything within their power to try to derail the agreement," he said.
In Iraq, Kurdish politicians have long been the most supportive of the U.S. presence, and the two main Kurdish parties are the only ones in the government to have publicly backed the agreement. "We believe it is in the interest of all Iraqis, especially Kurdistan," Barzani said yesterday.
Shiite parties contesting for control of provincial councils have not committed themselves, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not taken a public stand on the agreement.
Iraq could seek a one-year extension of the U.N. mandate as a short-term solution, but Iraqi officials have long resisted that alternative as a violation of their national sovereignty.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.