Iraqis Press Harder For U.S. Withdrawal Timeline

The debate over how long U.S. troops should stay in Iraq is heating up. Several Iraqi leaders are calling for a formal timetable on the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Iraqis are angry over what they believe is American intent to build dozens of permanent bases in the country. U.S. officials deny the claim.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Debra Amos. How long should U.S. troops stay in Iraq? That debate is now heating up in Baghdad. Several Iraqi leaders are demanding a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops. The Iraqis are angry over what they believe is a U.S. intention to build dozens of permanent bases in Iraq. U.S. officials deny permanent bases are in their plans, and they say the public debate is more contentious than the actual negotiations.

But American officials concede the long term agreement called SOFA, or Status of Forces Agreement, is now off the table. What they hope for is an interim agreement to bridge the gap when the United Nations mandate expires at the end of this year. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Baghdad. Welcome to the program.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning.

AMOS: So what is the status of the interim negotiations?

NELSON: Well, U.S. officials who are close to the negotiation, they are very optimistic. They say that they've reached a declaration of principles. And so they've sort of come together on the major points that they want to achieve, and even some of the details to some extent have been ironed out.

And so they remain optimistic that perhaps they can meet the deadline of July 31st, which they had set for themselves. This is actually an informal deadline. The real deadline, as you mentioned, is December 31st, when the U.N. mandate expires.

AMOS: Are we going to see a timetable by the time these negotiations are over for withdrawal of the U.S. troops?

NELSON: That certainly will be discussed. I don't think anyone's committing to that yet. And it seems that some of the discussion that's going on behind closed doors is in fact different than some of the political debate we're seeing outside.

However, there are three things that U.S. officials say must be addressed in this agreement when it is finally hammered out. That is, making sure that there is some sort of provision dealing with combat authority, the holding of detainees - because apparently at this point Iraqis are not in a position to take over completely - and also perhaps the most controversial point, which is immunity and whether that immunity will be extended to contractors and to U.S. troops. U.S. troops seem more important, I think, from the U.S. position.

AMOS: Now, these negotiations have been going on for quite some time. It seems clear they're not going to get the formal comprehensive agreement that the Americans wanted. So what's been the problem?

NELSON: The way it was described to us is that these SOFAS - or status of forces agreements - are something we have with more than 80 countries in the world. But they're very complex. They take years to negotiate. And so there never was really that kind of time to begin with.

And also because you're dealing with a scenario in Iraq - this is a changing atmosphere - at some point you really do want Iraqi forces taking over security for their own country. But they're not quite there yet. So you sort of need something in the interim to keep that going.

And so the U.S. officials that we spoke with stress that that is why this interim deal - or protocol, as they're calling it - it's not a formal agreement, because, again, this is a changing environment. And it's not something that can be negotiated quickly enough for the December 31st deadline.

AMOS: Now, will this agreement be binding considering that on the American side it's an executive agreement, and on the Iraqi side I understand it is not going to go through the parliament?

NELSON: The idea is for there to be some sort of framework put down that could carry forward. But yes, technically the next administration, since it is an executive agreement, could change it or make some amendment to it at some point.

AMOS: How much is politics getting in the way of having a more comprehensive agreement - our presidential elections and the fact that the Iraqis are getting ready for their own elections and this has become an issue for them?

NELSON: There's no doubt that the politics are certainly what's driving this at the moment. It's affected the negotiations in a way that I think both sides who are involved in the negotiations are not too happy about. But it is the reality. I mean, and obviously regional politics come into play as well. Particularly Iraq's neighbor to the east, Iran, is very concerned about what comes out of this.

But there's also another issue going on here. And that's Iraqi sovereignty. I mean, the country is for the first time really flexing their muscles in a way they've never done in since the war. And so I think part of that is also that evolution and that struggle.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Baghdad.

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