U.S. and Iraq near a 'bridge' deal on status of U.S. troops
By the end of July, they hope to finalize a deal that would map out the role and "time horizon" for US troops in the country.
By the end of July, US and Iraqi officials hope to finalize a deal that would map out the role and length of stay for US troops in the country.Skip to next paragraph
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But this is likely to be a temporary "bridge" agreement, including specific goals for terms of US withdrawal from major cities, followed by further talks on a long-term status of forces agreement (SOFA), says a senior US administration official involved in the talks here.
The US shift to a short-term deal follows comments last week by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suggesting for the first time that a timetable be set for the departure of US troops. On Saturday, Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said that "we need a timetable for withdrawal" and that the US should not commit to a long-term occupation of Iraq,
But a key question is whether any deal can be sold to Iraq's political factions in an election year. The Iraqi government is beset by divisions and conflicting agendas with regard to the status of US forces that are playing out both in the media and in private.
There is strong opposition to any deal from the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr as well as from Iran, which exercises large sway over Shiite factions inside and outside the government and objects to any US troop presence in Iraq.
"We are going to a new process.... The conversation [with the Iraqis] is how we package this in a way that meets [Iraq's] political challenge," says the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the politically sensitive nature of the negotiations. "I think we can get there…. At least have it [agreement] in good shape [by end of July]."
Several senior Iraqi officials close to the talks also see a similar scenario. "We are discussing a framework agreement and it could be agreed upon by the end of the month," says Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful Shiite politician who heads parliament's defense committee. He is a member of Iraq's Political Council for National Security, a body that includes Iraq's president and his two deputies, the prime minister and his two deputies, the speaker of parliament, and the heads of the main parliamentary blocs.
This council could make or break any deal and it is expected to meet in the coming days to discuss the specifics of the agreement, according to Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliamentarian.
When the SOFA talks were launched in March, also under discussion was a broader, framework document outlining the political, economic, and security relationship between the US and Iraq. While the SOFA pact is being postponed, the framework document is expected to be completed soon with an appendix that temporarily governs the status of US forces until a full SOFA is reached, say US and Iraqi officials.
For Washington, the three most important components of any agreement, according to the administration official, is the ability of US troops to operate in concert with Iraqi forces in what is still considered until now a "combat environment," retain the right to detain anyone deemed a security threat, and continue to be afforded immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.
The US side is also eager to clinch a deal before the end of President Bush's term. SOFAs are "tedious and complex," take on average two years to negotiate, and require Congressional approval, says the US official. He notes that the SOFA with Israel took seven years to conclude. The bridge agreement under discussion now would be "legally binding" in many respects and only require Bush's signature, says the official.