By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 14, 2008
BAGHDAD, Nov. 13 -- Iraq's interior minister has criticized the country's politicians for not approving an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to operate in Iraq after the end of the year, and called their continued presence crucial.
"The security agreement is important for Iraq to ban and stop foreign influence and interference," minister Jawad al-Bolani said in an interview Wednesday. "The Iraqi people need this security agreement."
Bolani, one of the few top Shiite leaders to speak publicly in favor of the deal, said Iraqi politicians should declare their stances on it.
"They should be outspoken," he said. "You have to have a clear vision" that can be articulated.
Top Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have largely kept their views private during protracted and contentious negotiations on the status of forces agreement, which would replace the U.N. Security Council mandate when it expires at year's end.
U.S. officials agreed in recent days that the deal would include firm withdrawal deadlines: Troops would leave small outposts in June 2009, and the vast majority of service members would leave Iraq by the end of 2011. The Bush administration had previously maintained that troop withdrawals should be contingent on prevailing conditions and that deadlines ought to be "aspirational," rather than firm. But nothing in the draft agreement precludes the Iraqi government from asking the U.S. military to stay beyond the deadline or to leave earlier.
Members of Iraq's cabinet are scheduled to meet Sunday to vote on whether to submit the current draft agreement to parliament. With provincial elections a few weeks away, many lawmakers have not indicated how they would vote because they are leery of the political fallout.
Even if the draft is presented to lawmakers, it's unclear whether Iraq's sluggish and fractured parliament could hold an up or down vote before the end of the month, when they go on recess.
The U.S. and Iraqi governments remain at odds over the extent to which Iraq should be able to prosecute American soldiers accused of grave crimes committed while off duty. The Pentagon would like to handle virtually all instances of misconduct within the military's judicial system. But Iraqi officials have demanded to have the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers who commit grave offenses when they're outside a base and not on a joint mission with Iraqi forces.
Bolani said that failure to reach an agreement would have a lasting effect on his ministry, which just two years ago had been widely infiltrated by militias and was a prime instigator of sectarian violence.
"It is easy to build a ministry, get weapons and equipment," he said. But his ultimate goal is more complex and far from accomplished, he added. "Our goal is to build a principled system -- a patriotic force."
A research team from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., traveled to Iraq last month to conduct an assessment of the Interior Ministry. Since 2006, when Bolani became minister, the ministry has fired nearly 3,000 employees on administrative corruption charges, according to a draft of the researchers' report.
Bolani replaced nearly the entire leadership of the National Police, an elite force accused of widespread human rights violations. Ministry officials have also implemented mechanisms to keep track of weapons. Yet, much of the gigantic bureaucracy's business is done via letters. Few ministry officials use computers. And many of its departments, to varying degrees, still lean heavily on the U.S. military.
The authors of the report, Matt Sherman and Roger Carstens, who worked previously in Baghdad for the U.S. government, gave the ministry's leadership high marks for the steps it has taken to professionalize its force and curb the influence of militia leaders and politicians in law enforcement matters. But they concluded that years of progress could erode quickly.
"The ministry is very susceptible to any type of political change," Sherman said. "The institution itself is not that solidified and has not been able to grow enough to withstand any significant political change."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington and special correspondent Qais Mizher in Baghdad contributed to this report.