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.
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Although the US has indicated that it would be willing to consider dropping the immunity enjoyed by private security contractors as a concession to Iraqis, it's not clear yet how this would work in practice since firms like Aegis, Blackwater, and others are now an integral component of US military and intelligence operations in Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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On the other hand, the government of Prime Minister Maliki is eager to demonstrate its nationalist credentials to Iraqis and prove that any deal with the Americans replacing their current UN-sanctioned mandate, which expires on Dec. 31, will contradict what some of Maliki's political enemies are saying and bring Iraq a more robust sovereignty.
This was underscored last week when Maliki during a landmark visit to the United Arab Emirates asserted that any agreement would have to include either a timetable for withdrawal or full withdrawal of US forces.
His remarks were later echoed by several of his Shiite aides. "The Iraqi negotiators enjoy the trust of their people and can crush the unrealistic ambitions of the Americans in this agreement," boasted Hassan al-Snaid, one of Maliki's senior partisans, on state-owned Iraqiya TV.
The US official concedes that Washington may have overplayed its hand with some of its opening positions in March, which he says gave opponents of the treaty, particularly Iran, ammunition to "poison" the talks.
"Some of our opening positions were up here," he says. "It looked like we were trying to lock up the status quo through this bilateral arrangement."
But he's quick to add that these are negotiations and that it's natural for each side to aim to maximize their gains. As an example of Iran's alleged meddling in the talks, the official says Iraqis had asked the Americans to provide them with an idea of where in the country they envisioned being stationed in the first quarter of 2009. The US official says the preliminary response was possibly 58 locations. But this was leaked to the media and spun as "we were seeking 58 permanent bases," thereby fueling Iran's alleged "sophisticated cooked-up propaganda campaign."
The US official says the negotiating team is willing to discuss with Iraqis how to meet their demands for a timetable despite Washington's argument that this will only benefit the opponents of Iraq's new political system and allow them to wait until US troops leave.
One compromise would be the notion of a "time horizon ... to include dates for goals of where we want to be."
These would include milestones such as when security responsibilities would be handed over to Iraqis in all 18 provinces especially Baghdad. So far, the transfer of control has taken place in nine provinces, and the expectation is that it would be completed in the rest of the provinces by the end of this year. Another milestone would be the US "transition from combat mission to overwatch," of Iraq forces, he says.
Lt. Gen. James Dubik, a retiring US Army officer who was in charge of training Iraqi forces during the past year, provided a hint on Wednesday in testimony to Congress. He said US ground troops would "mostly be done" with their combat operations by mid-2009.
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