The Future of U.S. Troops in Iraq

Will U.S. troops have a new legal basis to operate in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year? Meetings between the presidential candidates and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and negotiations between U.S. and Iraqi officials have focused on the issue.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

How long will American troops stay in Iraq? That's perhaps the most important and perplexing foreign policy question facing our nation and our presidential candidates.

Both John McCain and Barack Obama spoke separately this week with Iraq's foreign minister. They were briefed on U.S.-Iraqi negotiations over the status of forces.

NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr says the issue may now take on a higher profile in the election race.

DANIEL SCHORR: On Sunday, Senator John McCain met in his Northern Virginia campaign headquarters with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. On Monday, Zebari talked on the telephone to Senator Barack Obama. This unusual foray into the American electoral campaign had its reasons. The al-Maliki government is under pressure from the Bush administration to sign an agreement for an indefinite stay of American troops that is strenuously opposed by Iran and others in the Middle East as a form of colonization.

That agreement could have a short lifespan if Senator Obama, who wants to bring home American troops, were to be elected. Obama said, we have no interest in permanent bases in Iraq. Senator James Webb says the debate in Baghdad is finally beginning to reverberate in Washington. It's also beginning to reverberate in the presidential election campaign.

Negotiations have been in progress since March for two agreements governing the status of forces and a strategic alliance. After a three-day visit to Tehran, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pronounced the negotiations deadlocked, at an impasse, or at a dead end, depending on the translation from the Arabic. But Zebari says the talks are ongoing and that some progress has been made. The U.S. has reportedly retreated on giving American contractors immunity from Iraqi law. The question of immunity for American troops apparently remains unresolved.

A delicate issue is whether American forces would be able to conduct anti-insurgent operations on their own authority. Iraq as a matter of sovereignty demands to be consulted, and there's been some discussion of a joint Iraqi-American commission to make these decisions. Maliki also insists on submitting any agreement to his parliament for ratification. President Bush does not plan to seek congressional approval.

There's already widespread opposition in Iran and much of the Arab world to what is labeled a permanent American military occupation of Iraq. Maliki may have to contemplate the idea that a President Obama, having promised to bring the troops home, would not honor such a treaty.

This is Daniel Schorr.

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