July 31, 2008, Baghdad – Iraq and the United States are close to a deal on a sensitive security agreement that Iraqi officials said on Wednesday satisfies the nation’s desire to be treated as sovereign and independent.
The agreement, under intense scrutiny in both countries, sets the terms for the presence of American troops in Iraq. Negotiations had stalled a month ago largely over the Bush administration’s refusal to specify an intention to withdraw troops. While the current version does not specify any exact date, officials said, President Bush’s recent acknowledgment that withdrawal was an “aspirational goal” has revived the talks and pushed them closer to completion.
The emerging agreement, officials said, gives Iraqis much of what they want — most notably the guarantee that there would no longer be foreign troops visible on their land — and leaves room for them to discreetly ask for an extended American presence should security deteriorate.
“The intention is to maintain full sovereignty for Iraq with close observation of the security situation, which will determine exactly when Iraq will no longer need American forces,” said Jalaluddin al-Sagheer, a member of Parliament from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq who is close to the negotiations.
Although security nationwide has improved far more rapidly than expected in the last several months, it could erode quickly, a point that was underscored earlier this week in Kirkuk when a suicide bomber killed 24 people and set off accusations from different ethnic groups that quickly spiraled into a riot.
“The negotiations had gotten to the point that a draft was being circulated,” said an American official in Washington who is familiar with the negotiations.
The Americans have been pushing hard for an agreement to be reached in the next two days, said Haider al-Abbadi, a Parliament member close to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, but he said that the Iraqis were not ready and that he was not sure they would be able to come to an agreement by then.
The Bush administration’s unofficial deadline for the deal has long been July 31. Although the United Nations mandate allowing American troops to operate in Iraq will not expire until the end of the year, politicians in both countries have been concerned that with elections approaching in the United States and Iraq, it might not be possible to reach an agreement once the fall campaign is in full swing and it would be better to finish negotiations during the summer.
Also, the White House announced late on Wednesday that President Bush would make a statement on Iraq on Thursday morning.
It was not clear whether the draft would even include a tentative timetable for troop withdrawal. The American official said that the draft did not include a date of the so-called time horizon.
Officials said that they were discussing the goal of having all American troops, including advisers and trainers, leave by 2010, but that the time of departure would depend on conditions on the ground.
The authorization for the presence of American troops would be renewable annually so that if conditions worsened or improved, Iraqis could respond to that, according to Ayaed al-Sammaraie, a Sunni leader, and several other Iraqis knowledgeable about the agreement.
The agreement is divided into three parts, said Fouad Massoun, a Kurdish member of Parliament close to the negotiations, as well as several other Iraqis. The first section is an uncontroversial “strategic framework agreement,” which generally lays out the future relationship between the United States and Iraq.
The second section is a “protocol” that includes the rules governing American troops. It would authorize the continued presence of American troops in Iraq and give them authority to conduct operations, but only with the permission of the Iraqis. This section would deal with immunity for American forces, long a central demand for American negotiators. Soldiers would continue to have immunity during authorized military operations as well as on the bases, said Ali al-Adeeb, a member of Parliament from Mr. Maliki’s Dawa party and a close adviser of Mr. Maliki.
The agreement does not make it clear how contractors would be dealt with. While the Americans have said that private security companies would no longer be immune from Iraqi law, there are many other contractors, like translators and food service workers, whose status has not been made clear.
The third section would be an appendix that would describe the administrative mechanism for authorizing American operations. There would be a joint Iraqi and American committee in each province that would authorize operations and a joint committee at the national level to resolve disputes.
The resolution of the rules governing detainees still appeared to be unresolved, according to several Iraqis close to the negotiations. There are two difficult issues: whether Americans will be able to detain Iraqis in the future, and what should be done with those who are being held by the United States.
American forces now hold about 22,000 Iraqi detainees at Camp Cropper in Baghdad and Camp Bucca, near the Kuwait-Iraq border. While the vast majority will never be charged under Iraqi law because there is not enough evidence to bring them to trial, the American military says that about a third remain security risks. The question remains whether and when to turn them over to the Iraqis. The vast majority are Sunni, while much of the Iraqi security force is Shiite.
Conversations with half a dozen Iraqi lawmakers made clear that the American government’s decision to bend on the issue of discussing an end date for the American military presence in Iraq played a large role in the reconciliation between the two groups of negotiators.
“The time horizon is very important for Iraq because Iraqi has no interest in keeping American forces here for a long time,” said Mr. Sammaraie, who said that the negotiators would like the withdrawal to include all forces in order to encourage all American troops to do their work efficiently. “For instance in Afghanistan they were slow to train Afghan soldiers, and now they are having all kinds of problems,” he said.