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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Mr. Ameri, the head of the parliamentary defense committee, says future discussions are going to revolve around Iraq's desire for an annual US troop status agreement and the US wish that it be for a longer period, "possibly a few years." Ameri suggests that one compromise would be to have a longer-term agreement that provides each side with the right to end it with 12-months' notice.Skip to next paragraph
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But any potential agreement still faces a number of political obstacles.
The Shiite parties, particularly the movement of Mr. Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) that continues to back Maliki, are in the midst of a vicious power struggle that is expected to heat up in the run-up to provincial elections set for October. Sadr has warned that the SOFA treaty is "against the interests of the Iraqi people."
His partisans, although weakened and hemmed in as a result of recent military operations, continue to condemn the treaty each Friday during mass prayers coupled with brief demonstrations in Baghdad and the south.
Parallels are being drawn by some local media outlets between the current situation and the British mandate for Iraq in 1920 that sparked a nationwide revolution in July-October.
The government is eager to counter Sadr's weight. When it discusses the troop negotiations with the Americans, it mentions at every possible occasion that it enjoys the backing of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the reclusive yet highly revered Shiite cleric in Najaf.
Although the US side and the Maliki government both share the goal of weakening the Sadrists, some Shiites in the government particularly those close to Iran are suspicious of the treaty.
ISCI's chief Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim said in an interview on July 4 that any agreement must include guarantees that the US would not attack Iran from Iraq.
"We do not want Iraq to be a launching pad for operations against neighboring countries especially Iran that stood next to Iraqis for a long time and sacrificed for them," said Mr. Hakim.
The US must also tread a fine line with Sunnis when it comes to the treaty.
The relationship between the US and the Sunni population has undergone a sea change over the past two years with many now regarding America as their protector against what they still perceive to be Shiite aggression and Iran's designs on Iraq. In 2004, it was the Sunni leaders who were demanding a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq as a condition for backing the political process. No more, at least not the Sunnis inside Iraq.
Many Sunni leaders are concerned now that America may cede too much too soon to what they still regard as both a Shiite-controlled sectarian government and security forces.
"We want America to act as a wise mediator to help in creating a political atmosphere for a stable, balanced, and economically viable state," says Alaa Makki, a senior parliamentarian and leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, speaking in English. "The security emptiness, if it occurs, will definitely be [taken advantage of] by the neighboring countries."
Mr. Makki says Iraqi forces are not ready yet to assume more responsibilities because they are torn by sectarian and party loyalties and "will not behave in a national way."
Jawad al-Bolani, Iraq's interior minister, summed up the challenges in an article published Saturday in the Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat: "The Kurds are with the treaty in public and private, Shiite Arabs are with it publicly but against it secretly, Sunni Arabs are with it secretly but against it publicly."