U.S. officials moved quickly to downplay al-Maliki's remarks. One day later, President Bush declared during a press conference with his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy, "If I were a betting man, we'll reach an agreement with the Iraqis." Then, to ward off widespread criticism that the agreement imposes several unpopular conditions on Iraq, Bush added, "We're going to work hard to accommodate their desires."
This optimistic tone was further amplified when Iraq's foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari announced Tuesday in Washington that, "I believe a deal is within reach," attributing it to U.S. "flexibility." He said that he expected all issues to be resolved by the end of July.
However, Zebari warned, "We have to be realistic about the obstacles." These include the thorny question of whether the U.S. military will have the authority to detain Iraqi citizens and hold them in U.S. custody.
Zebari's optimism appeared to stem from a U.S. willingness to drop a demand that foreign civilian contractors operating in the country should enjoy immunity from Iraqi laws. Washington has also reportedly agreed to reduce its demand for 58 military bases to a number in the "low dozens."
The U.S. insists it will not use Iraq to launch an attack against other countries in the region, such as Iran or Syria, Zebari was quoted as saying -- although, as IPS reported last week, some of the language in the Mar. 7 draft agreement appears to be deliberately misleading and leaves open the possibility for the U.S. to respond "defensively" to threats to its troops or other interests.
Bush has just six more months left in the White House, meaning that time is more on the side of the Iraqis than the U.S. administration. Recognizing that, and given domestic opposition in Iraq to the deal, Iraqi leaders appear to want to pressure the U.S. to make as many concessions as possible.
The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that Baghdad and Washington are negotiating provides a legal basis for the future presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. The U.S. has around 80 similar agreements with other countries around the world, including Japan, Germany and South Korea.
But critics allege the agreement with Iraq is far broader than any SOFA deal ever signed and borders on a treaty, which under the U.S. constitution requires Congressional approval. The Republican-led White House is fiercely opposed to involving legislators in the process, fearing its Democratic rivals may not agree with the provisions of the pact favoured by Bush administration.
The two countries have also agreed to negotiate a "Strategic Framework," which will regulate bilateral relations in the areas of politics, economics and culture.
Faced with stiff domestic opposition, the Iraqi government has run into great difficulty trying to sell the deals to the public.
Opinions in Iraq on the SOFA pact are diverse and in some cases deeply divided. While some reject it on nationalistic or religious grounds or both, others support a deal but want a clear timetable for eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops to avoid an "open-ended occupation."
"The Status of Forces Agreement is difficult because it involves sovereignty, especially for Iraqis who do not want to be regarded as 'puppets' of the U.S.," Phebe Marr, an author and scholar of Iraq's modern history, told IPS.
The fact that negotiations are ongoing provides a unique opportunity for politicians to gain popularity by taking a vocal stance against it.
Amid all this, Muqtada al-Sadr's Shiite movement is playing a smart game by opposing the deal and demanding a referendum on it, as they declared through a mass protest in late May. This strategy both strengthens their anti-U.S. credentials and gains the favor of the masses by insisting on public approval for any agreement.
If the two countries fail to reach a deal, there will be two alternatives: either the Iraqi government will request an extension of the UN mandate for another year, or the U.S. will have no legal basis to remain in Iraq and be forced to pull out. This last appears highly unlikely, as Iraq still does not have a reliable, well-trained army to establish order or an air force to protect its airspace and borders.
"I think the government in Baghdad wants an agreement while Bush is still in the White House. It is not clear how supportive a new U.S. administration might be of a continuation of the present arrangement. The idea that the Iraqi government wants the U.S. to leave tomorrow is mistaken. Their continuance in power is at stake," said Marr.
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Albion Monitor June
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