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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."