In Iraq, Diplomatic Stalemate Over U.S. Presence

Negotiations have stalled between the U.S. and Iraq over the future role of American troops there. The so-called "status of forces agreement" is in trouble — and Iraqi leaders are considering alternative proposals. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad speaks to host Andrea Seabrook about the dispute.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

We'll start today with a diplomatic stalemate in Iraq. Not between rival factions or between American troops and insurgents, but between the U.S. and the Iraqi government it supports. The dispute is over a status of forces agreement, some call it a SOFA. The U.S. has this kind of agreement with dozens of other countries. In this case, it would set parameters for the future U.S. presence in Iraq. Both the U.S. and Iraq had hoped to work out the agreement by the end of this month.

But NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has been talking to Iraqi leaders and they say that's not going to happen. Lou Lou, tell us what's changed.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, simple, Iraqi politicians that we spoke to said they're looking instead at a short-term interim agreement that would give U.S. troops a legal basis to stay here, but would not be as comprehensive as a status of forces agreement. What they're looking at is some sort of protocol or memorandum of understanding, these are the words they used.

The question is whether this protocol will provide U.S. troops with the legal basis necessary to operate here. Since 2003, American and other foreign forces have operated in Iraq under a U.N. mandate. It expires at the end of the year, so some alternative will have to be reached so that U.S. forces can continue their presence here.

SEABROOK: And any comment from the U.S. about this idea that a status of forces agreement may not work out?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: They are saying very little publicly and that has been their position all along. A U.S. official close to the negotiations said, quote, "It will be an agreement that is acceptable to both sides, you can call it whatever you want." Very curt. These talks are very fluid, the goal posts are changing all the time.

But when I spoke to National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie from Iraq, he said that they are looking at a number of options to replace the SOFA agreement. So everything at the moment is on the table.

SEABROOK: Is the political process going on here in the United States affecting this attempt at an agreement?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, certainly the foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, gave a press conference this week in which he said that the political process in the United States was having an effect on these negotiations. You also have to remember that there is a political process in Iraq as well. A lot of political parties are using these talks to bolster their own credibility, if you will.

The issue of Iraqi sovereignty, whatever people think about the presence of U.S. troops in this country, the occupation in this country, is all being brought to bear on these negotiations.

SEABROOK: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in Baghdad. Lou Lou, thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

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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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