WASHINGTON – U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have abandoned efforts to conclude a comprehensive agreement governing the long-term status of U.S. troops in Iraq before the end of the Bush presidency, according to senior U.S. officials, effectively leaving talks over an extended U.S. military presence to the next administration.
In place of the formal status-of-forces agreement negotiators had hoped to complete by July 31, the two governments are now working on a “bridge” document, more limited in both time and scope, that would allow basic U.S. military operations to continue beyond the expiration of a U.N. mandate at the end of the year.
The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord – blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept U.S. terms and the complexity of the task – deals a blow to the Bush administration’s plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years.
Although President Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, “we are talking about dates,” acknowledged one U.S. official close to the negotiations. Iraqi political leaders “are all telling us the same thing. They need something like this in there. … Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever.”
Unlike the status-of-forces agreements between the United States and countries such as South Korea and Japan, where large numbers of U.S. troops have been based for decades, the document now under discussion with Iraq is likely to cover only 2009. Negotiators expect it to include a “time horizon,” with specific goals for U.S. troop withdrawal from Baghdad and other cities and installations such as the former Saddam Hussein palace that now houses the U.S. Embassy.
The fixed dates will likely include caveats referring to the ability of Iraqi security forces to take over from U.S. units, but without them, U.S. negotiators concluded that Iraqi acquiescence was doubtful. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his political allies have come under intense domestic pressure to reject any perceived infringement on Iraqi sovereignty. Al-Maliki, who last week publicly insisted on a withdrawal timeline, wants to frame the agreement as outlining the terms for “Americans leaving Iraq” rather than the conditions under which they will stay, said the U.S. official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because U.S.-Iraqi negotiations are ongoing.
The most contentious unresolved issue is the legal immunity of U.S. troops and Defense Department personnel from Iraqi prosecution for any alleged crime. “We’re trying to come onto the same page,” a second U.S. official close to the negotiations said. “But with U.S. forces in potential combat situations, we have some real bottom lines.
“But even on that question, it’s one thing on immunity if in the Iraqi mind it’s an agreement for U.S. troops forever,” he said. “It’s another thing if these immunity arrangements are temporary because U.S. forces are temporary.”
Largely cosmetic compromises have been made on other difficult questions, such as the formation of joint U.S.-Iraqi commissions to oversee all unilateral U.S. combat and detainee operations and provide a veneer of Iraqi control. Washington has acquiesced to Iraqi refusal to grant immunity to private contractors, an issue that is controversial because of incidents in which American security contractors have killed Iraqi civilians.
U.S. and Iraqi officials also hope the new, bare-bones agreement – called a “temporary operating protocol” in Washington and a “memorandum of understanding” in Baghdad – will allow them to sidestep significant political roadblocks that have impeded completion of a broader agreement.