Sunday, November 16, 2008

Maliki tells Bush he now backs new U.S. troop deal

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By Leila Fadel

After months of tough negotiations and multiple revisions, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki has decided to back the controversial U.S.-Iraq security agreement that calls for the complete withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2011, Iraqi and U.S. officials said Friday.

Maliki informed President George W. Bush in the last 24 hours that he's "satisfied" with what Iraqi officials now are calling the "withdrawal agreement," a Bush administration official said in Washington. Earlier, Maliki informed the Iraqi Presidency Council that he'd back it, Sami al Askari, a Shiite Muslim legislator who's close to the premier, said Friday.

At Maliki's meeting with the Presidency Council last week, President Jalal Talabani and Shiite Vice President Adil Abdul Mehdi responded that they and their political blocs also supported the draft, but the Sunni Muslim vice president, Tariq al Hashimi, declined to give his endorsement, Askari said.

Askari said Maliki, who'd won two last-minute concessions from the Bush administration, plans to address the nation to seek public support for the accord. He'll present it to the Cabinet on Sunday and if it's approved, it will go to the parliament, which will vote for or against it. The Bush administration is briefing Congress on the accord but won't submit it for a vote. Without Sunni backing the agreement could die before it goes to parliament, however.

Maliki's endorsement amounts to an about-face, for he was a hard-line holdout throughout the negotiations and had publicly criticized the agreement over the summer. The negotiations have been a political minefield for him, and he's stepped through it carefully.

The agreement, which is due to take effect Jan. 1, would replace a United Nations mandate that allows U.S. forces to operate in Iraq and severely limit their activities.

According to Askari, the United States agreed to two more amendments to the draft after returning what Washington called the final text. He said that the negotiating teams were working through the night Friday to synchronize the Arabic and English texts.

"We can't get any more," Askari said. "In practice, the Americans, they can't do anything alone, according to this agreement. . . . He (Maliki) feels now after all these amendments it's not a perfect agreement but he can now go to the people and politicians and say, `Look, it is far better to accept this than the other options.'"

But in Washington, the administration official, who refused to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said he wasn't aware of any additional changes to the accord and that there had been "no fine tuning at all."

Washington and Maliki are hoping that the Iraqi parliament will approve the pact by Nov. 24, when it's scheduled to adjourn.

Askari said the United States didn't give in to Iraqi demands for the power to prosecute American soldiers but that Maliki decided this was the best deal Iraq could get. Currently the draft says that in cases of a major crime, a joint U.S. and Iraqi committee will decide whether an American soldier was off duty and where he'll be tried.

"There is a realization that this is a red line for the Americans," Askari said. "They never did it (before) so why will they do it for Iraq?"

The parliamentary process for the accord will take at least a week, and if it doesn't pass there, Iraq will have to ask the U.N. Security Council to renew the mandate.

During the interview with McClatchy, Askari received a call from Maliki to discuss the final plans for the draft.

Currently the draft calls for U.S. soldiers to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of next June and to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011. Askari said the latest draft contained about 100 changes requested by the Iraqi government, including a U.S. agreement for Iraq to inspect American cargo that it finds suspicious, Askari said.

"He played carefully and cleverly because until recently he didn't say a clear yes," Askari said of Maliki. "He never said I'm 100 percent behind this."

Even after receiving what the U.S. government called the final agreement, Maliki asked for two more changes, which have been agreed to, Askari said. One was to strike a line that would allow for a review in order to extend the June 30 date to withdraw from Iraqi cities. Another asked that a line referring to consultation with "relative Iraqi authorities" on home raids and searches be changed to the "Iraqi government."

For the first time in the negotiation process, Shiite lawmakers seem to be on board with the agreement. Privately, Iraqi officials who aren't linked to Maliki have said that Shiite political groups had been drawing out a negotiation process that they'd never agree because of to pressure from neighboring Iran.

Members of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq said they'd agree if there was "national consensus. "The Itilaf (Shiite alliance) agrees as long as everyone agrees," said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a Shiite lawmaker from the council. The alliance includes the council and Maliki's Dawa party.

Sunni Muslims are still wavering. "We cannot say yes and we cannot say no," said Salim al Jubouri, a spokesman for Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party. He called for a national referendum.

But Askari said that Shiite officials who typically echoed the Iranian position recently had become amenable to the agreement. An exception is Muqtada al Sadr, who leads a populist Shiite movement opposed to the U.S. occupation, who restated his opposition Friday.

The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the foremost Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq, said that he'd "directly intervene" if the agreement violated Iraqi sovereignty. Sistani hasn't seen the latest draft.

Iran had openly urged Iraq not to sign the accord. Maliki sent copies of the latest U.S. draft to Iran, Syria and other nearby countries, Iraqi officials said.

"Their (Iran) stance was clear from the beginning until now . . . they don't want Bush to have credit," Askari said. "Sometimes they asked for us to wait until Obama comes. . . . We can't wait; we'll lose this opportunity."

Aides said Maliki weighed the agreement, knowing that it would seal his name in history either as the man who legalized an American occupation or ended it, aides said..

"From the first day" he wanted this agreement, "but he wanted an agreement he can defend," Askari said. "It will go to the record that he is the man that forced them (the U.S.) to leave."

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