'Final' Deal On Troops In Iraq Could Still Face Delays

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There could be action soon on a long-awaited agreement on the status of U.S. forces in Iraq.

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have been working for more than a year to come up with a deal that would govern how American troops can operate in the country and how long they're going to stay.

This week, U.S. officials delivered what they said was their final offer on the deal, but Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said more talks were needed. He added, though, that the atmosphere going forward was "positive."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was more emphatic, nearly echoing the words of American officials after they delivered their last, best offer.

"We believe it is important to conclude this agreement during the remaining days of the current administration," he says, "because with them we've started this process, we know the issues, we know what is at stake."

Zebari stresses that it's also time for the Iraqi government to make up its mind.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, says that some members of parliament are talking about submitting any final agreement to the Iraqi people for a vote.

"I think there's a possibility that there may be more delays, because the referendum needs preparation," Othman says. "It could only be done with the elections. Elections would be at the end of January or early February, so practically, it will go to the next administration."

Putting the agreement to a popular vote would take a lot of pressure off Iraq's parliament, which is facing strong opposition from blocs such as lawmakers loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Othman says he thinks that if the agreement is put to a vote, the Iraqi people will, reluctantly, approve it.

"I think the majority of Iraqi people will support it, not because they like it," he says. "It's a reality we have to accept."

But an agreement needs to be in place by the end of the year, before any referendum could be organized. That's when a United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S. occupation expires. U.S. officials have said that if there's no agreement, the American military will have to withdraw to its bases and stop providing security, training and aid to the Iraqi government.

Iraqi officials have said that if there's no agreement, they'll ask the U.N. to extend the mandate to keep American troops in the country.

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