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US-Iraqi security pact still unsettled

Amid growing opposition, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on Sunday for more time to negotiate a plan that could begin US troop withdrawals in June 2009.

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"It is time to take decisions. It is difficult to reopen the text," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on Saturday. "There is no hidden agenda. There is no permanent military presence. It is only for three years. The next days are very crucial for Iraqi leaders to decide."

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The United Nations mandate, under which US-led coalition forces currently operate, expires at the end of 2008. But Iraqi leaders and parliamentarians who face reelection are loath to be seen extending an unpopular occupation.

At some US military bases, American forces have begun giving more responsibility to expanding Iraqi forces and local government, in anticipation of eventual orders to keep off the streets. But a precipitous departure, US officials argue, would almost certainly reverse security gains of the past year across Iraq.

Many Iraqis agree. But they also want to end the more than five years of US presence that has brought heavy suffering to many households.

"The Americans have done enough destruction in this country, and all their promises were total lies to turn Iraq into a democracy," says Saad Jawad, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "I think the best thing is to leave Iraq on its own: They have given Iraq to Iran and to extremists."

Professor Jawad says he has little faith that the reasons for the improvement of security over the last year – which include the US troop surge in Baghdad, the decision by Sunnis to join US-backed "Awakening" groups to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Sadr's decision to disband his Shiite militia – will hold permanently.

"This is not progress. This is division of the country," says Jawad, contacted in London. "You don't build a country with militias."

Instead of solutions, Jawad finds strategic reasons for blame. "Before those people came to Iraq, all this fighting did not exist," he says. "They are not doing us a favor [whether they pull out or not]. They have destroyed Iraq. This is not the country we are looking for or were hoping for."

And many military uncertainties remain.

While earlier drafts of the security pact described US withdrawal dates as something to "aspire" to, the actual dates now laid out will depend on further progress.

"The US 'occupation' is so controversial and unpopular that the cost of staying long enough to do every job right could be higher … than the security benefits would be worth," said Anthony Cordesman, a veteran military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a report last week.

The transition "may well be as challenging as defeating the insurgency and Al Qaeda in Iraq," said Mr. Cordesman. "[Iraq's] forces are not yet ready to provide the security and stability that Iraq needs, and US withdrawals need to be tailored to the progress they actually make and not to politically correct deadlines."