SCOTT SIMON, host:

And let's pick up on what Dan mentioned, the U.S. and Iraq reaching a tentative agreement governing the deployment of U.S. forces in Iraq over the next three years. The deal took months of negotiations. Now both governments have to try and sell the deal to their lawmakers and their own citizens, as NPR's JJ Sutherland reports.

JJ SUTHERLAND: 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 is 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.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (Secretary of Defense, U.S.): I can tell you that Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Petraeus, General Odierno and I are all satisfied that our men and women in uniform serving in Iraq are well protected.

SUTHERLAND: That's not good enough for Congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a retired three-star admiral.

Congressman JOE SESTAK (Democrat, Pennsylvania): My understanding is that the word Secretary Gates once used in briefing someone on this is he believes that this will take care of our soldiers and that the ultimate decision, he believes, will be left up to the American commander. The word "believe" is not good enough.

SUTHERLAND: 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.

(Soundbite of Iraqi chanting)

SUTHERLAND: We will cut off the hands of whoever signs the SOFA, was the chant after Friday prayers yesterday in Sadar city in Baghdad. The sprawling Shiite slum is a stronghold of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. He and his followers are vehemently against the SOFA because it allows U.S. troops to stay in Iraq for any time whatsoever. Salam Solomon(ph) is a follower of Sadr.

Mr. SALAM SOLOMON: (Through Translator) The SOFA, it's just another lie. 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 existence.

SUTHERLAND: 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. What happens if there's no agreement is unclear. The UN mandate that authorizes U.S. forces in Iraq expires at the end of the year. And what happens without a status-of-forces agreement is unknown territory. JJ Sutherland, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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