Deal on U.S. troops faces possibly fatal objections in Iraq

BAGHDAD — A draft agreement by U.S. and Iraqi negotiators that calls for withdrawing Amercan troops by 2012 appears to be facing obstacles in Iraq that could kill the deal before it's implemented, lawmakers in Baghdad said.

After seven months of wearisome back and forth, negotiators completed the draft this week. Both governments are reviewing it. While the agreement doesn't require congressional approval, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are reaching out to key members of Congress and asking them to support it. In Iraq, the Political Council for National Security, the Cabinet and the parliament must approve it.

Progress on the accord follows a compromise on what's been the biggest point of contention between the two sides: the legal jurisdiction over U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

Under the draft now being discussed, Iraq could prosecute American troops accused only of committing major, premeditated crimes while they were off duty and outside U.S. bases. Some Iraqis argue that that doesn't go far enough, especially since U.S. troops and contractors rarely move around the country unless they're on duty.

The draft also calls for American troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by mid-2009 and from the country entirely by 2012.

Despite this week's movement, concern already is widespread that the pact — which the United States hopes to finalize by the end of the year — won't win Iraqi approval.

Whether the draft will survive is questionable, lawmakers here said.

"It's very hard to judge at this point," said Sami al Askari, a senior Shiite Muslim lawmaker and a close adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. "There are some who will fundamentally oppose any agreement with the Americans, regardless of the terms."

He said others might reject the draft because they thought that Iraqi negotiators had given up too much concerning legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops.

Mithal al Alusi, a secular Sunni Muslim member of parliament, said he'd support the draft if it made it to a vote in parliament. But, he added, "There are many who could oppose it because they are agents of Iran. It will ultimately be a fight between true Iraqi patriots and those who have been taken over by the Iranians."

Upcoming elections in Iraq also could complicate matters, said Salim Abduallah al Juburi, a spokesman for parliament's largest Sunni bloc.

"Unfortunately, not everyone will look at the agreement from the point of view of what is best for Iraq," he said. "With the elections, some will think only about the impression their decision might have on voters."

He said that he expected members of the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shiite bloc in parliament, to oppose the agreement because of Iran's influence.

"I won't decide my opinion until I have the opportunity to scrutinize the draft," he added.

Other lawmakers already have made up their minds: "I won't vote for this agreement as it stands, and anyone who would is a traitor to the Iraqi people," said Bahaa al Araji, a lawmaker with the Sadrists, followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. "Many of the points included in the draft I read are contrary to the Iraqi Constitution and Iraqi law."

On Friday, U.S. negotiators in Iraq, along with Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top American commander here, had a video conference with senior aides in both houses of Congress to brief them on the draft's terms. At the same time in Iraq, top government officials and political party leaders had a similar meeting.

A statement issued late Friday by the Iraqi government said its meeting had ended without any formal decisions. Discussions on the draft will continue in the coming days, the statement said.

Besides the issue of legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops and a timeline for American withdrawal, the agreement discusses a larger role for Iraqis in U.S. military operations. Except in rare circumstances, American troops no longer would be allowed to make arrests or search homes without permission from Iraqi authorities. The Americans also would have to transfer anyone they detained to Iraqi custody within 24 hours.

The agreement is necessary because a United Nations mandate that's allowed U.S. troops to operate in Iraq will expire Dec. 31. If an accord governing their continued presence isn't reached by the end of the year, American forces in Iraq technically could become illegal occupiers.

(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. Youssef reported from Washington. McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this story.)

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