U.S. staying silent on its view of Iraq pact until after vote

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 25, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has adopted a much looser interpretation than the Iraqi government of several key provisions of the pending U.S.-Iraq security agreement, U.S. officials said Tuesday — just hours before the Iraqi parliament was to hold its historic vote.

These include a provision that bans the launch of attacks on other countries from Iraq, a requirement to notify the Iraqis in advance of U.S. military operations and the question of Iraqi legal jurisdiction over American troops and military contractors.

Officials in Washington said the administration has withheld the official English translation of the agreement in an effort to suppress a public dispute with the Iraqis until after the Iraqi parliament votes.

"There are a number of areas in here where they have agreement on the same wording but different understandings about what the words mean," said a U.S. official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Iraqi government Tuesday achieved a breakthrough on the pact, which calls for American troops to leave Iraq by 2012, by gaining conditional support from Tawafuq, a bloc of Sunni Muslim parties. Tawafuq's condition was that the government holds a nationwide referendum on it next year.

The Sunnis also want the U.S. to refrain from implementing wording that they consider vague, though lawmakers declined to say which passages concerned them.

In some areas, three officials told McClatchy, the U.S. and Iraq have agreed on the words but have different interpretations of what they mean. All three declined to speak on the record because the administration, which had planned to release the official English language text last week, has instead designated it "sensitive but unclassified."

The White House National Security Council said it had held up the translation's release until the Iraqi parliament votes. "We plan to release it soon," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "We are waiting for the Iraqi political process to move further down the road."

A U.S. official, however, said the aim was also to head off any debate in the U.S. media. The administration fears that any discussion "may inadvertently throw this thing of the rails," said the official, who couldn't be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters.

The Iraqi parliament began distributing an Arabic version of the document nearly two weeks ago, and Iraqi television has been broadcasting excerpts this week. On Tuesday, a pickup truck loaded with boxes of blue books containing the Arabic version parked outside the parliament in Baghdad, where officials handed out copies to journalists.

McClatchy's Baghdad bureau last week produced an unofficial English translation of the agreement based on the Arabic text. McClatchy on Tuesday also obtained an official English version.

U.S. officials have told McClatchy that the Bush administration was eager to complete the deal before it leaves office in January and acquiesced to many Iraqi demands.

Two U.S. officials, however, said that if it becomes clear that the Bush administration has different interpretations of some key provisions than Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government does, Iraqi lawmakers might balk at approving the pact or delay a vote while seeking clarification. The current United Nations mandate governing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq expires on Dec. 31.

Specialists who follow the Iraq war said they were aware of the differing interpretations. Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institution, a center-left research group in Washington, said there are "these areas that are not as clear cut as the Iraqis would like to think." He said the two governments "have agreed to punt together on a number of important issues."

Among the areas of dispute are:

  • Iraqi legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops or military contractors who kill Iraqis on operations. The agreement calls for Iraq to prosecute U.S. troops according to court procedures that have yet to be worked out. Those negotiations, administration officials have argued, could take three years, by which time the U.S. will have withdrawn from Iraq under the terms of the agreement. In the interim, U.S. troops will remain under the jurisdiction of America's Uniform Code of Military Justice.
  • A provision that bars the U.S. from launching military operations into neighboring countries from Iraqi territory. Administration officials argue they could circumvent that in some cases, such as pursuing groups that launch strikes on U.S. targets from Syria or Iran, by citing another provision that allows each party to retain the right of self-defense. One official expressed concern that "if Iran gets wind that we think there's a loophole there," Tehran might renew its opposition to the agreement.
  • A provision that appears to require the U.S. to notify Iraqi officials in advance of any planned military operations and to seek Iraqi approval for them, which some U.S. military officials find especially troubling, although Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, and Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, all have endorsed it.

"Telling the Iraqis in advance would be an invitation to an ambush," said one U.S. official, who said the Iraqi government and security forces are "thoroughly penetrated by the insurgents, the Iranians, the Sadrists (followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr) and ordinary folks who just sell scraps of intelligence."

The administration has sought to assuage such concerns by arguing that the pact doesn't require the U.S. to give the Iraqis detailed information about planned operations, two officials said. For example, they said, the administration interprets the agreement to mean that U.S. commanders would merely need to inform their Iraqi counterparts that they plan to launch counterterrorism operations somewhere in an Iraqi city or province sometime during the month of January.

Such differing interpretations could present problems. Sunni lawmaker Omar Abdul Sattar said Tuesday that Tawafuq, the Sunni alliance, wants a pledge that the Americans will not implement articles in the security agreement that Tawafuq considers vague.

The Sunnis also are insisting that the agreement be submitted to a national referendum next year. Without that assurance, the Sunni lawmakers said they'd reject the deal, denying it the appearance of national unity that's considered essential for it to succeed.

"The government should be committed to the results of the referendum, whether people will accept the (security agreement), or reject it," Sattar said.

Supporters of the pact likely have enough votes to guarantee its passage without the Tawafuq alliance, but Sunni support was considered essential to demonstrate a national accordance favoring the treaty.

The Sunnis said they plan to submit their proposal Wednesday as a resolution that would be separate from the vote on the security agreement, which also is due for a vote Wednesday.

The Sunnis' proposal emerged on a day that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and two deputy prime ministers made last-minute efforts to cajole lawmakers into supporting the deal.

They described the agreement as the best option for Iraq to end the American occupation while upholding the improvements in security over the past year.

"This agreement is meant to support the nascent democratic process in Iraq," said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurdish politician who advises Maliki. "This is for Iraq, not any party or group."

(Ashton, who reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee, reported from Baghdad. Landay and Youssef reported from Washington. Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.)

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