By Ernesto Londoño, Mary Beth Sheridan and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 7, 2008
BAGHDAD, Nov. 6 -- Two days after the election of Barack Obama, Iraq's chief spokesman said with unusual forcefulness Thursday that his government will continue to insist on a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops, despite American demands that any pullout be subject to prevailing security conditions.
"Iraqis would like to know and see a fixed date," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in an interview in which he also reiterated Iraq's position that American forces be subject to Iraqi legal jurisdiction in some instances.
Iraqi officials, who see President-elect Obama's views on the timing of a U.S. withdrawal as consonant with their own, appear to be leveraging his election to pressure the Bush administration to make last-minute concessions. Dabbagh said negotiations to reach a status-of-forces agreement, which would sanction the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2008, would collapse if no deal is reached by the end of this month.
Iraqi leaders have typically voiced their insistence on a fixed withdrawal date in Arabic comments aimed at domestic and regional audiences, and U.S. officials have frequently said that their Iraqi counterparts have sounded more conciliatory in private discussions. Dabbagh spoke directly to The Washington Post on Thursday, and in English.
Dabbagh said officials must return to the negotiating table, but a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said American officials presented Iraqi officials on Thursday with what she called a "final text" of the agreement.
U.S. officials in Washington said they had tried in the new document to accommodate Iraqi concerns, although they described few if any substantive changes. The administration proposed a stronger statement pledging that the United States would not launch attacks on another country from Iraqi soil -- a change prompted by Iraqi criticism of last month's attack by helicopter-borne U.S. troops on an alleged al-Qaeda in Iraq operative several miles inside Syria.
References to the 2011 withdrawal deadline were modified to emphasize that any troops remaining beyond that date would be there by Iraqi invitation. On the key question of Iraqi legal jurisdiction over U.S. forces, the Pentagon resisted any significant change, although there was a slight alteration in wording.
"The process has concluded on our side and we look forward to hearing back from the Iraqis," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. "We have addressed the issues in a way that respects the sovereignty of both sides."
Aides to Obama did not respond to a request for comment.
In the interview, Dabbagh said American soldiers should be prosecuted in the Iraqi court system if they commit grave offenses outside their bases, unless they are on a joint mission with Iraqi troops. U.S. combat troops should cease operating unilaterally by June, Dabbagh said, and the status-of-forces agreement should say that the vast majority of U.S. troops must leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
"U.S. troops should be secluded to known camps," Dabbagh said. "The Americans would be called whenever there is a need. Their movement would be limited."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Thursday night that top Iraqi officials were studying the document the Americans had given them. "Time is of the essence," he said.
Haider Abadi, a Shiite lawmaker who is a senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Obama's stated goal of bringing American troops home relatively quickly is in line with the Iraqi government's vision.
"He's been saying all along that he wants to withdraw U.S. forces within 15 months," Abadi said in a phone interview Thursday night. "That fits with the Iraqi proposal."
Months ago, Obama said he would like to withdraw American troops within 16 months of taking office, but as the security situation has improved, he has stopped citing that time frame.
Abadi said it remains unclear how Obama's election will ultimately affect the negotiations. "It can go either way," he said. The Bush administration, the lawmaker explained, might have refrained from making some potentially controversial decisions during the run-up to the U.S. election. Conversely, he said, "maybe the political will in Washington will be weaker" now that the election is over.
Iraqi officials say it is also unclear how much support there is in the 275-member parliament for the agreement because many lawmakers are afraid to reveal their positions publicly. The Kurdish bloc, which has 53 seats, supports an agreement. Thirty lawmakers who are followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are staunchly opposed.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say Iran's government has been trying to persuade Iraqi lawmakers to reject the agreement. Lawmakers are also reluctant to express support for extending the presence of the U.S. military in Iraq for years because they fear it would hurt them politically in provincial and national elections scheduled to take place next year.
While security in Iraq has improved dramatically in recent months, many U.S. and Iraqi officials describe the gains as tenuous and fear that political tensions leading up to, and following, next year's elections could unleash further violence.
Seeking a renewal of the U.N. Security Council resolution that permits the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is an option the Iraqi government would like to avoid at all costs, Dabbagh said. "The U.N. mandate gives them a free hand in everything," he said.
Dabbagh said Maliki sent Obama a congratulatory letter Wednesday. He said many Iraqi leaders who initially favored Sen. John McCain of Arizona came to support Obama after the Democrat visited Iraq this summer because they realized their vision of the U.S. presence in Iraq was more in line with Obama's than McCain's.
"They respect him and feel that he can be a good friend," Dabbagh said, describing Iraqi leaders' feelings toward Obama.
While acknowledging that Iraq continues to rely heavily on the U.S. military in areas such as air support and intelligence gathering, Iraqi officials want Americans to stop acting unilaterally in Iraq. For example, Dabbagh said, the U.S. military's multimillion-dollar effort to influence public opinion through television ads, billboards and other means should become a joint effort.
"We don't have a hand in all the propaganda that is being done now," he said. "It could be done much better when Iraqis have a word and Iraqis can advise."
The administration's stated optimism that the agreement will be signed before the U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31 is based on two premises: that the Maliki government considers a U.N. extension more politically problematic than a bilateral agreement that is less than 100 percent of what it has asked for; and that Iraqi leaders do not want to begin the negotiating process all over again after Obama takes office.
Should both of those assumptions prove false, the process of drawing up a new U.N. resolution and voting in the Security Council would take about two weeks. Although Iraqi officials initially said they would ask for an altered U.N. mandate that incorporated their sovereignty concerns, they have more recently acknowledged that U.N. parameters authorizing non-peacekeeping combat forces are fairly narrow. Instead, the officials said, Maliki would emphasize that any U.N. extension be of limited duration.
Obama was careful during the campaign not to comment on the substance of the negotiations with Iraq or any specific issue, except to say he would give the military a new mission of withdrawing from Iraq within 16 months, at a rate of one or two combat brigades a month. Obama has said he would maintain a "residual force" of unspecified size in Iraq, available for "targeted counterterrorism missions" against al-Qaeda in Iraq and to protect U.S. diplomatic and civilian personnel.
U.S. troops would also continue training Iraqi security forces, Obama has said, provided the Maliki government was making progress on political reconciliation among Iraq's ethnic and sectarian groups.
Both Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. have noted Maliki's pledge to submit any agreement to the Iraqi parliament and have said it was "unacceptable" for the White House not to seek a similar review from the U.S. Congress. They have also stated that any agreement must make "absolutely clear that the U.S. will not maintain permanent bases in Iraq."
DeYoung reported from Washington. Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.