U.S. and Iraq Negotiate on Extending Troops' Stay
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
This Status of Forces Agreement you just heard about is being negotiated in Washington and Baghdad. And the talks are not going especially well. Iraqi and U.S. lawmakers complain they're not being consulted, and they don't like what they're reading in the newspapers about who's saying what at the table.
NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN: In part, the problem is trust, or lack of it. Some leading members of the U.S. Congress don't want to see the Bush administration tie the hands of the next U.S. president in Iraq. And two Iraqi lawmakers who came to Washington say they don't trust their government to consult with them; besides, says Sheikh Khalaf al-Ulayyan, the Iraqi government can't negotiate a good deal from such a weak position.
Sheikh KHALAF AL-ULAYYAN (Iraqi Lawmaker): (Through translator) We think that a complete U.S. withdrawal must be decided before this treaty is signed, because we believe that we can't sign any balanced treaty while we have guns pointed at our heads.
KELEMEN: He's with a Sunni-led party, and he came here along with a lawmaker from a Shiite party to urge members of Congress to insist on a timetable for withdrawal rather than a Status of Forces Agreement that they fear will keep U.S. troops in Iraq indefinitely and infringe on Iraqi sovereignty. Nadim al-Jaberi of the Shiite Islamic Virtue Party, known as Fadhila, says their concerns are widely held.
Mr. NADIM Al-JABERI (Fadhila Party): (Through translator): Especially taking into consideration that the majority of the members of the Iraqi parliament are against signing a treaty with the U.S. now, especially with the details that were leaked to the media.
KELEMEN: The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has been spending a lot of time lately denying reports in the media that the U.S. is, for instance, seeking long-term military bases in Iraq.
Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): That is just flatly untrue. Nor are we seeking to control Iraqi airspace, that is another kind of injuring myth.
KELEMEN: Ambassador Crocker accused Iran of deliberately misleading Iraqis about this to try to make the talks more complicated. He said little about what the U.S. is actually seeking, other than to say U.S. troops need to have a new legal basis to operate in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year. He said the military agreement would have a provision for a periodic review for the next administration, and he still hopes to finish negotiations by the end of next month.
Amb. CROCKER: Like a number of things that we're dealing with in Iraq, my focus on this is more on getting it done right than getting it done quick.
KELEMEN: Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says he expects this won't get done this year and Iraq will end up back at the U.N. to extend the mandate for U.S. troops.
Mr. KENNETH KATZMAN (Congressional Research Service): I think it's a very unsettled political situation for the Iraqis to accept any agreement that's strong enough to satisfy also the U.S. military.
KELEMEN: Katzman says the U.S. military is looking for flexibility, and there are many questions to be answered in a Status of Forces Agreement, from legal immunities for U.S. troops and contractors to basic operational limitations on U.S. military raids in Iraq.
Mr. KATZMAN: Do the Iraqis have to necessarily be present and part of the raid? You know, it gets into complicated issues because there are factions in the Iraqi security forces who are themselves unreliable and in some cases working two or three sides of the street themselves.
KELEMEN: But all this raises another concern, according to Katzman. He's heard members of Congress worry that the treaty being negotiated with Iraq will commit the U.S. to certain missions that the next U.S. president might want to wind down.
Mr. KATZMAN: The feeling among people in Congress that I hear from, or from some in Congress, is that why at this late hour in the Bush administration should there be any limitation on flexibility on what the next president might or might not do?
KELEMEN: Democrat Barack Obama has campaigned on a plan to immediately start withdrawing U.S. combat troops from Iraq, while Republican John McCain advocates continuing the current strategy.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.