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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.

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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."

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