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Proposed pact with U.S. runs into trouble in Iraqi Cabinet

Ministers question items on immunity and withdrawal. Gates warns on further delay.

October 22, 2008|Ned Parker and Saif Hameed | Parker and Hameed are Times staff writers.

BAGHDAD — Iraq's Cabinet asked for changes to a draft U.S.-Iraqi security agreement Tuesday, once more casting doubt on the document's speedy passage, less than three months before the U.N. mandate authorizing the presence of American troops in the country is to expire.

The first Cabinet session to review the document revealed how divisive the security agreement has become. Only the country's Kurdish bloc is publicly backing the current accord, while Shiite Muslim and Sunni Arab allies of the U.S. remain wary of endorsing the draft, which had been described by Americans and Iraqis as in its final form. The Iraqi side again called for more negotiations.

"The Council of Ministers has unanimously agreed that there are necessary amendments which need to be made to the current draft in order to raise the agreement to a nationally acceptable level," government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said in a statement.

The slow pace means that an agreement might not be reached before the U.S. presidential election in two weeks and that Iraqi and U.S. negotiators might ultimately forgo a long-term agreement in favor of a more temporary arrangement.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told wire service reporters that the door to change was "pretty far closed" and warned that failure to reach a deal or renew the United Nations mandate would mean suspension of U.S. operations.

"There is great reluctance to engage further in the drafting process," he said.

One Iraqi government official who attended the session said the Cabinet would start debating the suggested changes Sunday. He described the new objections as proof that the main factions in the government, particularly Shiites, are reluctant to risk their political future on an agreement that has been assailed by Iran and Iraqi cleric Muqtada Sadr, a rival to the ruling Shiite coalition.

"These are diversionary tactics. We've gone through this before and now we are back to square one," the official said. "Definitely we are running out of time."

The official heaped blame on Prime Minister Nouri Maliki for failing to put his weight behind the draft. The prime minister said a decision on the agreement belonged not to him but the government. Maliki told Kuwaiti journalists last week that he was not sure when the deal would go forward.

The Cabinet session Tuesday crushed lingering hopes that meetings last week involving Maliki, President Jalal Talabani and other Iraqi leaders might marshal the political will to shepherd the agreement through parliament.

Expectations were already low after Maliki's coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, called for changes in the document's wording over the weekend.

The official who attended Tuesday's Cabinet meeting said some ministers called for the agreement to be put before a national referendum. Ministers also demanded alterations to the language regarding immunity of U.S. troops from prosecution in Iraqi courts and calling for a withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.

The agreement, according to an official Iraqi interpretation, would allow the Iraqi government to petition a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee if an American was accused of committing a serious and premeditated crime while on duty. If both sides agreed, the suspect could stand trial in an Iraqi court. But the language is not precise enough for Cabinet members.

Iraqi officials also have worried about the implications of a clause in the agreement allowing U.S. troops to stay beyond 2011 if both sides agree.

"The Iraqis want to find a specific formula regarding the withdrawal that closes the door and doesn't leave all the windows open," said Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir, a senior member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest party in the ruling Shiite coalition.

The largest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, also said it wanted clarifications to the text and that it probably would not endorse the agreement until the government's Shiite majority made its position clear. "I think if the UIA and the Kurdish alliance agree on it, then we won't object," spokesman Salim Abdullah Jabouri said.

Saghir noted that Iraq could seek a renewable U.N. Security Council extension of the mandate for six months or one year to provide a legal umbrella for U.S. forces. Then U.S. and Iraqi officials could renew negotiations when the next U.S. president takes office in January.

Iraqi politicians are also mindful of provincial elections expected here early next year and the public's negative view of the U.S. after five years of sectarian war, suicide bombings and poor basic services.

"It gives the message the Iraqi government is not a traitor, that America has not produced a fake government, but a legal and true government," Shiite lawmaker Sheik Humam Hamoodi said in a September interview.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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