BAGHDAD — U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Thursday accused Iran of "pushing very hard" to derail a security agreement that would authorize American troops to remain in Iraq past Dec. 31.
Crocker also speculated that Iran may be tightening its ties to Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq and co-opting them from anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr, who for the last year has ordered his followers to largely refrain from violence. He said Iran has a history of using members of political or other opposition groups in other countries to its advantage.
"I think what we may be seeing is a situation in which these groups or their successors are far more tightly linked to Tehran and perhaps less linked to Sadr," Crocker said in an interview.
That could mean a resurgence of militia activity if fighters decide the time is right. Coming at a time of increasing Iraqi government sovereignty and declining American power here, and with provincial elections planned by Jan. 31 and national elections next year, there is plenty at stake, particularly in the oil-rich south where Shiite parties with strong Iranian links will vie for power.
A United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq expires at the end of this year. Crocker said he was convinced the Iraqi government and people would not put up with Iranian meddling after the bloodshed of March and April, when hundreds died in clashes between Shiite militias and Iraqi and U.S. forces in a government crackdown.
Iran denies involvement in the violence or interference in the negotiations. In an interview in Baghdad this month, however, the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, made it clear that his country deeply opposes the security agreement on the table as "one-sided."
He also appeared to be speaking on behalf of Iraqis, while insisting that Iraq could make its own decision.
"The Iraqi people disagree with anything that breaks their independence and sovereignty and judicial sovereignty," he said. "On this basis, the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government look at the agreement as being imposed on them."
Crocker warned that it would be "a very long time" before Iraqis overcome the fear and distrust that has hobbled the country and said his biggest concern as he neared the end of his career was that neither the Americans nor the Iraqis would have the patience to provide the resources and commitment to see Iraq make a complete recovery.
"You're not going to get the shining city on the hill here any time soon. It's ridiculous to expect that," said Crocker, who plans to leave early next year and retire. "You just have to chip away at it, an issue at a time."
Time, however, is running short, at least in the context of the U.S. troop presence, which numbers 146,000. The Iraqi government wants the security agreement to mandate that all U.S. troops leave by the end of 2011. That would leave little more than three years for Iraq to get its security forces in shape to protect the country and fill in other gaps that would be left by the departure of the Americans.
This would include taking over payment and command of tens of thousands of mainly Sunni Arab paramilitary forces known as the Sons of Iraq, who were hired by the U.S. military to enhance security nationwide. Along with Sadr's cessation of violence and the deployment of extra U.S. troops, the Sons of Iraq have been credited with reducing violence by about 80% in Iraq in the last 18 months.
The White House initially resisted setting a deadline for a troop withdrawal, but Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government insisted on its inclusion in any agreement. In his firmest statement yet, Maliki said last Wednesday that he expected all foreign troops to be gone from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011. He said an alternative such as an extension of the U.N. mandate could be difficult to achieve given Russia's strained relations with the United States.
Maliki also said Iraq wants U.S. negotiators to drop their demand that American troops continue to have immunity from Iraqi prosecution for alleged crimes committed against Iraqis.
U.S. negotiators arrived back in Baghdad this week with Washington's response. Crocker refused to give details, but U.S. officials have confirmed that immunity for troops remains the main sticking point.
Crocker said he believed Maliki was determined to finalize an agreement as soon as possible.
"My clear sense is that the prime minister is focused on Iraqi concerns," he said, "not what Tehran or any other regional capital might be saying."
Times staff writer Ned Parker contributed to this report.
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