WASHINGTON – President Bush said Wednesday he is confident he can work out a new security pact with the Iraqis before year’s end. But time is running out and the two sides may be forced to ask for an extension of the current U.N. agreement allowing the U.S. military to operate in Iraq.
Doing so would shift crucial decisions about U.S. military power in Iraq to the next U.S. president.
Political opposition to the proposed deal in Iraq has increased discussion in Washington and Baghdad about a U.N. extension. The Iraqi Cabinet this week authorized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reopen talks on the Status of Forces Agreement, and he has sent proposed changes to Washington.
“We’re analyzing those amendments,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office during a meeting with Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. “We obviously want to be helpful and constructive without undermining basic principles. And I remain very hopeful and confident that the SOFA will get passed.”
The current U.N. mandate gives legal authority for U.S. forces to operate only through Dec. 31. Iraq considered the mandate an affront to its sovereignty and sought a replacement agreement with the U.S. that functions more like a treaty between equals. Negotiations began in May; the Bush administration had hoped to complete them by the end of July.
Some in the administration now worry it may be too late to get the Iraqi parliament to approve the deal before the mandate expires. If a deal is not reached and the mandate not extended, American troops would be confined to their barracks and all operations would have to be suspended.
Security “gains that have been made will start to unravel potentially because we don’t have a legal mandate to operate,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Wednesday.
U.S. officials say they are working for a comprehensive deal and that there is no active effort to draft a temporary extension to the U.N. mandates. “I don’t think anyone has put pen to paper on anything,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Some administration officials, though, argue it is time to begin laying the groundwork to go back to the U.N. Security Council. Getting an extension to the mandate would require the approval of Russia and China, which hold veto power on the council.