Iraqis Consider Alternative Deal For U.S. Presence

The United States and Iraq have held protracted and contentious negotiations in recent months over the conditions for the continued American military presence in Iraq.

The aim was to work out what's called a "status of forces" agreement, or SOFA. But NPR has learned that Iraqi negotiators are now looking at alternatives.

Several Iraqi politicians say a status of forces agreement between Iraq and the United States looks increasingly unlikely.

"SOFA is far away, very far away," says Sheik Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, a senior Iraqi lawmaker with the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. "It will take a very long time to negotiate, probably one or two or three years or even more."

He says the Iraqis are now looking at hammering out a short-term, lesser deal that will determine the legal status of U.S. forces in Iraq. Since the 2003 invasion, American and other foreign forces have operated in Iraq under a United Nations mandate that expires at the end of the year.

"We are now discussing a protocol or even less than this, possibly some kind of memorandum of understanding," he says.

That protocol or memorandum would be attached to the "strategic framework agreement" — a broad pact that determines everything from cultural to commercial ties between two countries — that is also currently being negotiated.

Haider al-Abadi, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, says the move was made because of public and political opposition in Iraq to a status of forces agreement.

"The U.S side said possibly to reach a SOFA now may be not be possible," he says. "And that is why probably we are moving to something different now."

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, says that they are looking at a number of options to replace the SOFA agreement.

"We will find ways of providing our allies with ... legal basis for their staying in this country," he says. "We can't sort of imprison ourselves or limit ourselves into two or three options. I think we have to be much more creative than this."

The question is whether a protocol or some other type of agreement will provide U.S. troops with the legal basis necessary to operate and free the Iraqis from the current U.N. mandate. An extension of the mandate is still being considered as well.

Rubaie says he envisions a much less robust role for U.S. troops in the future.

"We believe that our Iraqi security forces are not very far from the self-reliant, self-dependent status," he says.

Still, there is no plan to ask U.S. troops to leave at the end of the year.

A U.S. official close to the negotiations refused to use the term "SOFA" when discussing the current talks. He said, "It will be an agreement that is acceptable to both sides. You can call it whatever you want."

Both Iraqis and Americans say it also looks increasingly unlikely that any deal — be it a protocol or something more substantive — will be reached by the self-imposed July 30 deadline.

Even though the United States has made concessions, there are still disagreements over immunity for U.S. soldiers who commit crimes while off duty and whether U.S. forces can hold detainees, among several other issues.

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