Under intense US pressure, Iraqi leaders have agreed to start negotiations on keeping some American soldiers here in a deal that signaled a realignment of political alliances.
Long after most reporters had rushed home to beat the 1 a.m. curfew still in force, Deputy Prime Minister Rosh Nuri Shawis emerged to read a statement to state-run television saying the attendees recognized the need for further training of Iraqi military forces.
“All those present agreed to authorize the government of Iraq to start negotiations with the American side," he said, noting the talks would be for training under a long-term framework agreement signed with the US three years ago.
The agreement is the crucial first step, long sought by the US, in negotiations that could lead to several thousand US troops remaining in Iraq after the current status of forces deal expires at the end of this year. Although no numbers have been placed on the size of the force, officials have privately said that a figure of 10,000 was significantly larger than expected.
President Obama made withdrawing all US forces from Iraq a campaign pledge but in recent months, US officials have raised a variety of reasons – including threats from Iran – as why it would benefit both the US and Iraq to have a continued American military presence here.
Mr. Shawis laid out the deal that appeared to have been brokered to bring former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi back into the political fold to obtain the agreement – including reactivating a powerful new national security council that he was to have headed.
With Mr. Allawi reentering the political fray to provide backing on the issue, current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now believed to have enough support for the agreement to be passed by parliament, even with the opposition of the Sadrists.
The agreement also calls for Allawi’s Iraqiya party to choose a new defense minister while Mr. Maliki and his allies would decide on an interior minister. Those key posts have been vacant because of political disagreements since the coalition government was formed in December.
A US embassy official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the training forces could conceivably continue to work with Iraqi special forces on counter-terrorism operations and provide intelligence help if the Iraqis asked. He says they had not yet discussed numbers of troops or specific areas for negotiation.
Although the statement said all attendees had agreed to the statement, which calls for negotiations with the US to be conducted in a spirit of cooperation and friendship, the head of the Sadr bloc, made up of lawmakers loyal to Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, walked out of the meeting in protest before it was read. The Sadrists consider the US still an occupying force and have made clear they will vote against any agreement to keep American forces.
The Sadr bloc has been an essential part of Maliki’s coalition government, cobbled together after Maliki’s State of Law coalition won two fewer seats than Ayad Allawi’s political bloc in elections last year.
“Our stand is clear from the beginning,” says Sadr member of parliament Amir al-Kinani. “We are opposing the Americans on our soil regardless of some other political blocs that are trying to gain political advantage from this agreement.”
Mr. Kinani says the Sadrists would vote against the agreement in parliament and that his party had no problem with signing contracts for US military trainers in the future but that first all existing American troops in Iraq would have to leave.
Cracks in Maliki's coalition
In recent weeks, Maliki’s coalition has appeared increasingly shaky, as some of his Shiite partners turned against him to side with Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc on issues including voting against dissolving Iraq’s electoral commission – a move Maliki had sought citing allegations of corruption.
“This triggered the alarm to them that they were left alone,” says Kinani.
Maliki, who has resisted calls for compromise on a defense minister, has essentially been acting as both defense and interior minister with long-standing criticism that he has diverted security forces and intelligence services to answer directly to his office. The agreement with Iraqiya promises more power-sharing.
“One reason that we were encouraged by what has happened last night and frankly what has happened recently in the political give-and-take here is that there seem to be broad partnerships in political coalitions emerging that take tough decisions,” says the US embassy official. “This is very good. Because we don’t want to be partner to a dictatorship or to a one-party regime.”
The agreement came after intense pressure from a series of US officials, most recently the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who met Maliki and Talabani Sunday to tell them that time was running out.
“With respect to the forces that are here for us a significant part of this is just a physics problem – you get to a point in time where you just can't turn back and all the troops must leave that's why it's so important to make the decision absolutely as soon as possible," Admiral Mullen told reporters.
He said any agreement with Iraq to keep soldiers here would require immunity for military personnel, an issue that would have to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.
The embassy official says the agreement reached last night included implicit acknowledgement that the deal would require immunity for American troops and would be presented to the Iraqi parliament.