October 29, 2008 in Nation/World

Iraqi Cabinet seeks security pact change

U.S. officials say concessions unlikely
By Mary Beth Sheridan and Karen DeYoung Washington Post

BAGHDAD – The Iraqi Cabinet decided Tuesday to reopen negotiations on a security pact intended to give U.S. forces the legal authority to stay in the country beyond Dec. 31, further delaying an agreement that American officials had hoped to conclude by now.

The call for changes in the proposed accord came as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki criticized an attack by Iraq-based U.S. forces on alleged al-Qaida operatives inside Syria last weekend. The Cabinet now wants the agreement to include language to “confirm that Iraqi land would not be the center for aggression” against its neighbors, said Planning Minister Ali Baban, who attended Tuesday’s meeting.

Ministers also want the pact to grant Iraq more legal authority over U.S. soldiers accused of crimes, to harden a tentative 2011 departure date for U.S. troops and to allow Iraqi inspection of U.S. military shipments. The inspection demand, along with an explicit ban on attacks on neighboring countries, reflects concerns that the United States might launch an attack on Iran from Iraqi territory.

Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that the current text of the document, concluded just weeks ago after nearly eight months of difficult negotiations, reflects the limit of U.S. concessions. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that the administration had not yet examined the new Iraqi proposals but that the bar for changes was “very high.”

“We think that the door is pretty much shut on these negotiations,” Perino said.

The bilateral agreement would replace a U.N. mandate that expires at the end of this year. Failure to conclude the deal by then would put the next U.S. administration in charge of further negotiations with Iraq.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the Cabinet demands were necessary to preserve “Iraq’s sovereignty and its most important interests,” although it was unclear whether the Iraqi side would be satisfied with minor language changes or would insist on more substantive alterations. The Cabinet, representing Iraq’s largest political groups, must approve the document before it can be sent to parliament for a vote.

Asked what would happen if the United States rejected the demands, Baban said, “We will discuss it again, inside the Cabinet.” So far, only the Kurdish parties, who make up the second-biggest bloc in the 275-member parliament, have expressed support for the accord. Shiite parties contesting control of provincial councils in elections scheduled for January – including Maliki’s Dawa Party – have not committed themselves, and al-Maliki himself has not taken a public stand on the agreement.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, has personally informed Iraqi officials that without bilateral legal authority, U.S. military operations here would virtually cease Jan. 1. Troops would be confined to their bases, and intelligence sharing and training of Iraqi security forces would stop.

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