American and Iraqi negotiators have reached a tentative agreement governing the use of American forces in Iraq over the next three years. Reaching the agreement took months of tense negotiations, and now both governments have to sell the deal to their lawmakers and to their public — which may not be an easy task.
The draft Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA as it's called in the acronym-happy world of the federal government, hasn't been released to the public. But American and Iraqi officials say there were two major points of contention.
The first was a timeline. The draft calls for all American combat troops to be out of Iraq by 2012.
The second, and stickier, is whether American personnel, troops and contractors, accused of committing serious crimes while off-duty and off-base can be tried in Iraqi courts.
There are deep concerns that Americans would not receive a fair trial in a judicial system that is still being rebuilt after decades of Saddam Hussein's influence.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been assuring U.S. lawmakers that there are safeguards to protect U.S. troops that run into trouble with the law in Iraq.
"I can tell you that Adm. Mullen, chairman of [Joint Chiefs of Staff], Gen. Petraeus, Gen. Odierno and I are all satisfied that our men and women in uniform serving in Iraq are well-protected," Gates said.
That's not good enough for Rep. Joe Sestak. A Democrat from Pennsylvania and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, he's also a retired three-star admiral.
"I understand the word Secretary Gates once used, when briefing someone on this, is that he believes this will take care of our soldiers and the ultimate decision will be left up to the American commanders," Sestak said. "The word 'believe' is not good enough."
Sestak and other members of Congress aren't alone in their worries about the draft agreement. In Baghdad, though, the greatest expression of concern was about the timetable.
"We will cut off the hands of whoever signs the SOFA," was the chant after Friday prayers in Baghdad's Sadr City. The sprawling Shiite slum is a stronghold of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He and his followers vehemently oppose U.S. troops in Iraq.
"The SOFA, it's just another lie," says Salam Salman, one of Sadr's followers. "We don't trust the Americans, because you know and I know that the Americans will stay forever. That's why we're protesting, because the SOFA is just another lie or another alibi for the U.S. occupation."
The Iraqi parliament is expected to take up the SOFA in the next few days, and it is far from certain the deal will pass.
The U.N. mandate that authorizes U.S. forces in Iraq expires at the end of the year — and what happens without an agreement is unknown territory.