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    Middle East
     Jun 21, 2008
'Breakthrough' in Iraq pact
By Mohammed A Salih

WASHINGTON - Despite apparent serious disagreements reflected in a series of incongruent statements by senior officials of the United States and Iraqi governments, they appear to have made a breakthrough in negotiations for a new security pact.

The fate of the pact appeared especially uncertain when, on June 9, the Associated Press quoted an unnamed senior George W Bush administration official as saying that it was "very possible" that the two countries would not reach a deal and that they would have to extend a United Nations mandate authorizing the presence of US troops on Iraqi soil.

Four days later, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gave unexpected weight to speculation about the deal's failure when he said during a visit to neighboring Jordan, "We have reached a


dead end, because when we started the talks, we found that the US demands hugely infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq, and this we can never accept."

US officials moved quickly to downplay Maliki's remarks. One day later, Bush declared during a press conference with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, "If I were a betting man, we'll reach an agreement with the Iraqis." Then, to ward off widespread criticism that the agreement imposes several unpopular conditions on Iraq, Bush added, "We're going to work hard to accommodate their desires."

This optimistic tone was further amplified when Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced on Tuesday in Washington, "I believe a deal is within reach," attributing it to US "flexibility". He said he expected all issues to be resolved by the end of July.

However, Zebari warned, "We have to be realistic about the obstacles." These include the thorny question of whether the US military will have the authority to detain Iraqi citizens and hold them in US custody.

Zebari's optimism appeared to stem from a US willingness to drop a demand that foreign civilian contractors operating in the country should enjoy immunity from Iraqi laws. Washington has also reportedly agreed to reduce its demand for 58 military bases to a number in the "low dozens".

The US insists it will not use Iraq to launch an attack against other countries in the region, such as Iran or Syria, Zebari was quoted as saying - although, as Inter Press Service (IPS) reported last week, some of the language in the March 7 draft agreement appears to be deliberately misleading and leaves open the possibility for the US to respond "defensively" to threats to its troops or other interests.

Bush has just six more months left in the White House, meaning that time is more on the side of the Iraqis than the US administration. Recognizing that, and given domestic opposition in Iraq to the deal, Iraqi leaders appear to want to pressure the US to make as many concessions as possible.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that Baghdad and Washington are negotiating provides a legal basis for the future presence of US troops in Iraq. The US has about 80 similar agreements with other countries, including Japan, Germany and South Korea.

But critics allege the agreement with Iraq is far broader than any SOFA deal ever signed and borders on a treaty, which under the US constitution requires congressional approval. The Republican-led White House is fiercely opposed to involving legislators in the process, fearing its Democratic rivals may not agree with the provisions of the pact favored by the Bush administration.

The two countries have also agreed to negotiate a "Strategic Framework", which will regulate bilateral relations in the areas of politics, economics and culture.

Faced with stiff domestic opposition, the Iraqi government has run into great difficulty trying to sell the deals to the public.

Opinions in Iraq on the SOFA pact are diverse and in some cases deeply divided. While some reject it on nationalistic or religious grounds or both, others support a deal but want a clear timetable for eventual withdrawal of US troops to avoid an "open-ended occupation".

"The Status of Forces Agreement is difficult because it involves sovereignty, especially for Iraqis who do not want to be regarded as 'puppets' of the US," Phebe Marr, an author and scholar of Iraq's modern history, told IPS.

The fact that negotiations are ongoing provides a unique opportunity for politicians to gain popularity by taking a vocal stance against it.

Amid all this, Muqtada al-Sadr's Shi'ite movement is playing a smart game by opposing the deal and demanding a referendum on it, as it declared through a mass protest in late May. This strategy both strengthens the Sadrists' anti-US credentials and gains the favor of the masses by insisting on public approval for any agreement.

If the two countries fail to reach a deal, there will be two alternatives: either the Iraqi government will request an extension of the UN mandate for another year, or the US will have no legal basis to remain in Iraq and be forced to pull out. This last appears highly unlikely, as Iraq still does not have a reliable, well-trained army to establish order or an air force to protect its airspace and borders.

"I think the government in Baghdad wants an agreement while Bush is still in the White House. It is not clear how supportive a new US administration might be of a continuation of the present arrangement. The idea that the Iraqi government wants the US to leave tomorrow is mistaken. Their continuance in power is at stake," said Marr.

(Inter Press Service)

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(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, June 19, 2008)


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