After months of negotiations and an end-of-year deadline looming, the ruling Shiite coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Sunday that some points "need more time, more discussion, more dialogue, and amendments to some articles."
As Iraqi and US leaders try to sell the pact to lawmakers in Baghdad and Washington, the deal exposes a potent mix of political and military risks. Upcoming US elections and a nationwide Iraq vote in January further complicate matters.
"We're going through a smoke-and-mirrors process," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq analyst at Queen Mary, University of London. "Maliki is positioning himself for the most nationalistic result [but he also] knows how much he needs the Americans."
Iraqi politicians have criticized the pact for giving away Iraqi sovereignty to foreign occupiers; thousands of Iraqis demonstrated against the deal Saturday, heeding the call to protest by the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"The Sadrists wouldn't vote for anything – not even for a blank piece of paper," says Mr. Dodge. "So it will be difficult to get it through. The Sadrists have identified a nationalist platform [with which] they can challenge the prime minister."
The latest draft of the deal requires American forces to withdraw from towns and villages to their main bases by June 2009, and to leave Iraq completely by the end of 2011. Any troops staying longer would do so at the specific request of the Iraqi government.
A key sticking point has been the terms of jurisdiction. US soldiers will continue to be subject to American law while on bases and on missions, though Iraq will be able to prosecute US soldiers and civilians if they commit "grave and premeditated felonies" off-base while not on missions, according a draft quoted by Agence France-Presse.
Mr. Sadr summed up much of the opposition to the draft in a statement read to thousands of supporters: "If they tell you that the agreement ends the presence of the occupation, let me tell you that the occupier will retain its bases. And whoever tells you that it gives us sovereignty is a liar."
The current draft represents numerous American concessions, though, from the original that was "spectacularly arrogant," says Dodge, and was reported to provide for a host of permanent bases, unfettered military operations, and blanket immunity for all Americans operating in Iraq.
By one count, as many as 70 US military and State Department lawyers at a time have been working to find language acceptable to both sides. The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, last week accused Iran of trying to pay off Iraqi politicians to undermine the deal.
"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."
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."