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.
A mixed Iraqi reaction to a US withdrawal timetable
Baghdad – The contradictions – the fears and cheers – associated with the proposed US-Iraqi treaty to regulate future US presence in the country can be seen and heard on the streets of Baghdad.
"Everyone who cooperates with America is a doll in its hand," reads a white banner quoting a saying by Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr, the slain father of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and the spiritual leader of the Sadrist movement.
Here in Sadr City, the teeming Shiite Baghdad slum, Mr. Sadr continues to enjoy wide support despite relentless US efforts to wall him in, literally.
Following the cease-fire in mid-May that ended weeks of battles between Sadr's Mahdi Army and US-led forces in Sadr City, the US military has been trying to isolate and weaken the movement. A wall was erected around the southern quarter of Sadr City where US forces are hunkered down. A second wall is going up right in front of Sadr's main office in the district. When it's completed, his office will be sandwiched between the walls.
One of the walls is painted with graffiti reading: "Thank you Mr.President." It's a sarcastic reference to Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, who reportedly owns some of the largest factories in Iraq manufacturing the giant concrete slabs that have become an iconic and controversial symbol of Baghdad's urban landscape.
This past Friday, hundreds of young men gathered on the sidewalk and street in front of Sadr's office to listen to a sermon by a pro-Sadr cleric. Sheikh Sattar al-Battat condemned the walls and other alleged injustices against the movement.
An aide takes over after the prayers and revs up the crowd by chanting: "No, no colonialism. No, no agreement. Out, out occupier. Yes, yes independence. Yes, yes liberation."
Nasir Naama, whose brother Hussein was a militia fighter killed in April in Sadr City, says he has no faith in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's announcement that any potential US-Iraqi treaty must include a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces.
"If there's a timetable, then that would be great. That would make us ecstatic. But the facts on the ground in Sadr City tell a different story. US troops have besieged us," he says.
But highlighting the rifts among Shiites, another Sadr City resident, Khodr Hassan, says that he fully backs Mr. Maliki. "I have trust in the prime minister, he's moving in the right direction.... We support a timetable for [US troop] withdrawal but not all at once ... [Otherwise] we go back to Square 1," says Mr. Hassan. "We are no match for the enemy [US troops].... We need political resistance."
Farther north, in the predominantly Sunni district of Adhamiyah, US troops in armored Humvees drive past a recreational center that includes an Olympic-size pool that was recently refurbished with US money.
One year ago, US forces were often attacked here. Now the area is secured by the Lions of Adhamiyah, a local militia that includes former insurgents. The "Lions" are now on the US payroll and tasked with protecting the area. Young men in secondhand military fatigues man checkpoints every 500 meters.
On Siham Street, one of the main shopping thoroughfares, stores that had been shuttered a year ago because of running battles on this street are now open and stocked with goods.
"The situation has turned 200 degrees.... The locals are protecting the area. The Iraqi Army and police have no say here," says Amer Hamid, a shop owner. "The Americans have become our friends. They are protecting us from the Mahdi Army militias that used to attack the area."
Everywhere in this neighborhood there are giant posters of Sheikh Ahmed Abdul-Ghafour al-Samarraie. In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sheikh Samarraie, an influential Sunni Arab cleric, was among the most vociferous opponents of US troop presence in Iraq. He publicly condoned attacks against US soldiers and called for a timetable for their withdrawal. He had previously been among the most ardent defenders of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Now Samarraie acts as a "coordinator" of the US-funded Sunni militias, dubbed Sons of Iraq.
On Thursday, draped in a gold-trimmed camel hair cloak, he rubbed shoulders with US military brass inside the fortified Green Zone during a conference to combat corruption and crime inside Iraq's security forces.
"I have not changed. I am with Iraq's interest,wherever it may be. If Iraq's interest is in confronting the Americans, then I am with confrontation. If Iraq's interest is with peace, then I am with peace," says Samarraie.
"Many people have their designs on Iraq.... I prefer that US forces not withdraw until the[Iraqi] Army is capable of fully taking over."
– Sam Dagher