LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News this is Weekend Edition. I'm Liane Hansen. 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 a status of forces agreement, or SOFA. But NPR has learned that Iraqi negotiators are now looking at other alternatives. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: A status of forces agreement between Iraq and the U.S. looks increasingly unlikely according to several Iraqi politicians. Sheik Jalal al-Din al-Saghir is a senior Iraqi lawmaker with the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
Sheik JALAL AL-DIN AL-SAGHIR (Iraqi Lawmaker, Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council; Imam): (Through Translator) SOFA is far away, very far away. It will take a very long time to negotiate, probably one or two or three years, or even more.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rather, 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 forces have operated in Iraq under a U.N. mandate that expires at the end of the year.
Sheik AL-DIN AL-SAGHIR: (Through Translator) We are now discussing a protocol, or even less than this, possibly some kind of memorandum or understanding.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That protocol or memorandum would be attached to the strategic framework agreement - a broad pack that determines everything from cultural to commercial ties between two countries - that is also currently being negotiated here. 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 SOFA.
Dr. HAIDR AL-ABADI(Iraqi Parliamentarian; Adviser, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki): The U.S. side said possibly to reach a SOFA now may not be possible. And that is why probably we are moving to something different now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie says they are looking at a number of options to replace the SOFA agreement.
Mr. MOWAFFAK AL-RUBAIE (Iraqi National Security Adviser): We will find ways of providing our allies with in the way of legal basis for their stay in this country. 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.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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. Al-Rubaie says he envisions a much less robust role for U.S. troops in the future.
Mr. AL-RUBAIE: We believe that our Iraq Security Forces are not very far from the self-reliance, self-dependent status.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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, quote, "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 increasing 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, whether or not U.S. Forces can hold detainees, among several other issues. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
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