Sunday, November 9, 2008

Iraqis seek more 'withdrawal' talks; U.S. says they're over

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By Leila Fadel, Nancy A. Youssef and Warren P. Strobel

The United States delivered Thursday what it said was the final text of the controversial accord on the stationing of U.S. forces in Iraq, but Iraq said more talks are needed before the government can accept it.

"We have gotten back to the Iraqi government with a final text. Through this step, we have concluded the process on the U.S. side," said Susan Ziadeh, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Baghdad. "Iraq will now need to take it forward through their own process."

The accord, which calls for complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011, has been the subject of tense negotiations for the past seven months.

According to State Department officials, the United States yielded to several important Iraqi demands, including Baghdad's proposal to inspect mail and cargo for U.S. forces in Iraq. One official said he did not know the details of how those inspections would be carried out, adding, "I don't think it's going to be overly intrusive."

He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity, because the details of the American response were not being made public.

Bush also accepted Iraq's request for firmer language in its call for U.S. troops to withdraw by the end of 2011, two defense officials said, although they did not know the details of the wording.

While the U.S. government signaled that it will not engage in further negotiations over the pact, which has been repeatedly delayed, the government spokesman, Ali al Dabbagh, indicated that Iraq expects further discussions with the United States before the process is completed.

"These amendments need meetings with the American side to reach the bilateral understanding, and the environment is positive," Dabbagh said in a statement on a government-funded television channel. "The Iraqi side needs time to give the main blocs to have their opinions, suggestions and notes on the amendments suggested by the American side."

Many Iraqi officials are now calling the status-of-forces accord, or SOFA, "the withdrawal agreement," possibly as a way of marketing it to a wary public.

The accord is controversial in Washington as well. The White House has pushed aggressively to reach the deal, but some Pentagon officials expressed concern that the concessions will set a precedent for current and future status-of-forces agreements with other countries. The United States is not believed to have agreed to another nation monitoring mail in status agreements with more than 80 other countries, for example.

Earlier this week, a senior Pentagon official who requested anonymity to speak candidly said he found it "hard to believe we could find aspects there that are acceptable" in the Iraqi proposal to search mail and cargo, adding: "What kind of precedents would we be setting?"

Administration officials said President Bush sees the agreement as key to shaping his legacy on Iraq. They said Bush wanted to leave the presidency with a solidified relationship between the United States and an indisputably sovereign Iraq.

To the White House, "SOFA is a sign of success," a second U.S. defense official, who also requested anonymity to speak candidly, told McClatchy.

That said, the Bush administration refused to accept one major Iraqi proposal, which would have given Iraq expanded legal jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers alleged to commit wrongdoing while in the country. U.S. officials have called that a "non-starter."

The agreement has to be completed by the end of this year in order to replace a U.N. mandate that provides the legal basis for the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Iraqi officials were tight-lipped Thursday about whether the changes were acceptable. The changes first must be presented to the cabinet. If the cabinet agrees, the draft will be presented to the Iraqi parliament. One of the main sticking points for Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government has been the issue of jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Shiite Muslim officials who raised new demands when the accord was completed two weeks ago have been accused of succumbing to Iranian influence not to sign the agreement. At the time, Iraqi officials openly predicted that the government would be forced to extend the United Nations mandate. In recent days, officials have sounded more positive about the outcome.

"The next step is for the cabinet to meet to look at the responses," Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told McClatchy. "I hope it will be very soon."

The latest draft calls for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and withdraw from Iraq by 2011. It also lifts immunity for private U.S. contractors such as Blackwater, whose security guards were accused of uncontrolled shooting while on patrol duty, resulting in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

It also allows for a joint U.S. and Iraqi committee to decide whether a U.S. soldier who's committed a crime outside a U.S. base was off-duty and where he should be tried. Iraqi officials wanted to make that decision on their own, but the Bush administration has apparently rejected the demand.

President-elect Barack Obama has long advocated a U.S. withdrawal by the summer of 2010, a date that Maliki originally demanded in the agreement.

U.S. officials are pushing to get the deal done before the end of the month. If it's not done by the beginning of December, the government will have to begin the process to renew the U.N. mandate, one U.S. official in Iraq said. The parliament must approve the agreement when it's back in session next week and before it adjourns just before the end of the month for the Hajj season, when millions of Muslims make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

"Look, the government of Iraq has debated this agreement thoroughly. ... They forwarded to us their suggested amendments. We got back to them," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Thursday. "Now the negotiating process has come to an end."

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