BAGHDAD – At the make-or-break stage of talks with the United States on the withdrawal of American troops in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has swept aside his negotiating team and replaced it with three of his closest aides, a reshuffle that some officials involved in the discussions warn could risk sabotaging the agreement.
The decision on the team negotiating the pact, which the Americans have described as the basis of a long-term strategic alliance with Iraq, remains so sensitive it has not been announced officially. In disclosing the switch this weekend, a senior Iraqi official close to al-Maliki also suggested that the two sides remain deadlocked on key issues.
The shake-up comes four months before the expiration of the United Nations mandate that authorizes the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Iraq recently, expectations rose that an agreement was imminent. But Iraq and the United States remain far apart on the matter of immunity for U.S. forces in Iraqi courts, the official said.
“People gave the impression we were close when Rice was here, but it’s not over. We would have a serious problem if we took it to Parliament right now,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official insisted that if U.S. troops remained exempt from Iraqi rule of law, the pact would never pass the legislature.
The sides are still negotiating a withdrawal date for U.S. troops, the official said.
The latest version of the agreement says all U.S. forces will leave by the end of 2011, unless Iraq requests otherwise. The text also says the Americans will withdraw from cities in June 2009, unless the Iraqis ask them to stay.
The new wording marks a departure from White House insistence on a conditions-based timeline for a U.S. withdrawal. Under the new language, Iraq, not the U.S. military, decides when Americans will leave.
In last week’s reshuffle, al-Maliki dismissed the delegation headed by the Foreign Ministry and chose his national security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie; his chief of staff, Tareq Najem; and political adviser Sadiq Rikabi to conduct the negotiations’ final stage, the official said.