BAGHDAD, Iraq – Two days after Barack Obama’s election as president, Iraqi officials are insisting on a withdrawal date for U.S. troops regardless of conditions on the ground and maintaining their demand that American forces be subject to Iraqi legal jurisdiction in some instances.
In an interview Thursday, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said an effort to reach a so-called status-of-forces agreement that would sanction the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2008 would collapse if no deal is reached by the end of this month. But a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said the same day that U.S. officials had already presented Iraq’s government with a “final text.”
American soldiers should be prosecuted in the Iraqi court system if they commit grave offenses outside their bases, unless they are on a joint mission with Iraqi troops, al-Dabbagh said. American combat troops should cease operating unilaterally by June, al-Dabbagh said, and the status-of-forces agreement should say that the vast majority of U.S. troops must leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
“Iraqis would like to know and see a fixed date,” he said. “U.S. troops should be secluded to known camps. The Americans would be called whenever there is a need. Their movement would be limited.”
The Bush administration has long resisted firm withdrawal timelines and said any pullout should be subject to security conditions at the time.
U.S. officials on Thursday responded in writing to proposed amendments Iraqi Cabinet members made to a draft of the agreement after many Iraqi lawmakers expressed misgivings about the draft’s language on withdrawal dates and the types of instances under which American soldiers would be subject to Iraqi law.
The initial draft said American soldiers would only be subject to Iraqi law for misconduct that occurred while they were off base and off duty. Because U.S. soldiers can’t leave their bases unless they are on a mission, the previous language made the prosecution of U.S. troops in Iraqi courts highly unlikely. Al-Dabbagh said the language was subject to interpretation.
U.S. officials are unlikely to cede ground on the issue of legal jurisdiction because Pentagon officials feel strongly that misconduct by soldiers ought to be handled by military prosecutors and Iraq’s judicial system is widely perceived to be rudimentary and at times arbitrary.
U.S. and Iraqi officials did not describe the content of the response American negotiators submitted to their Iraqi counterparts Thursday
Al-Dabbagh said the two sides will now resume talks. If a new draft is crafted, it will again be presented to Iraq’s council of ministers.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say Iran’s government, which has long-term relationships with many Iraqi lawmakers, has been trying to persuade them to reject the agreement. Lawmakers are also reluctant to express support for an agreement that would extend the presence of the U.S. military in Iraq for years because they fear it could hurt them politically in provincial and national elections.
Al-Dabbagh said that if the agreement is not signed this month, it is highly unlikely that negotiations will resume. He said an Obama administration is unlikely to sign off on some of the concessions the Bush administration has made, such as allowing Iraq to assert legal jurisdiction over the actions of U.S. contractors. Al-Dabbagh also said the political climate in Iraq will make renewed talks impossible.
Seeking a renewal of the United Nations Security Council resolution that permits the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is an option the Iraqi government would like to avoid at all costs, Dal-abbagh said.
“The U.N. mandate gives them a free hand in everything,” he said.
But it might be inevitable, he added.