Iraq PM Wants Short-Term U.S. Agreement

A youth looks at a U.S. army soldier as he takes position while on patrol in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City, Iraq, Thursday, July 3, 2008. AP Photo/Karim Kadim

Iraq's prime minister said Monday his country is now proposing an interim deal with the United States on the presence of American troops instead of a more formal agreement — and wants to include a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.

Some type of agreement is needed to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at year's end. But many Iraqi lawmakers had criticized the government's attempt to negotiate a formal status of forces agreement, worried that U.S. demands would threaten the country's sovereignty.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the memorandum "now on the table" includes a formula for the withdrawal of U.S. troops — an idea opposed by President Bush.

"The goal is to end the presence (of foreign troops)," al-Maliki told several Arab ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates during a meeting in Abu Dhabi.

The prime minister provided no details. But his national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, told The Associated Press that the government is proposing a timetable conditioned on the ability of Iraqi forces to provide security.

U.S. officials have said little publicly about the negotiations. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not comment directly on the specifics when asked about it on a trip to Baghdad.

"We'd all like to see U.S. troops get out of here at some point in time," Mullen said. "However, from a military perspective I need the laws and the regulations and the agreements from the government of Iraq in order to continue operations beyond the 31st of December of this year."

With the latest moves, Iraq's government appeared to be trying to blunt opposition in parliament to any deal.

Al-Maliki also could be trying to avoid parliament altogether. He has promised in the past to submit a formal agreement with the U.S. to the legislative body.

But his spokesman indicated Monday that the government might feel no need to get approval from parliament for a shorter-term interim deal.

"It is up to the Cabinet whether to approve it or sign on it, without going back to the parliament," said spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

Legal experts said the form of the deal was less significant than its substance.

"You could theoretically include everything in a memorandum of understanding that you could in a formal status of forces agreement," said Michael Matheson, an expert on international law at George Washington University Law School.

The Bush administration has said it doesn't need congressional approval even for a full status of forces agreement — a position criticized by some U.S. lawmakers.

The contentious issues have been U.S. authority to carry out military operations in Iraq and arrest the country's citizens, along with legal immunity for private contractors and control of Iraqi air space.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said last week after a visit to Washington that the U.S. had agreed to drop immunity for private contractors and give up control of Iraqi air space if Iraq guaranteed it could protect the country's skies.

But those concessions, never confirmed by the U.S. side, were apparently not enough to cement a formal agreement, leading Iraq instead to pursue the memorandum.

Al-Maliki said the memorandum would not ignore the thorny issues that held up a more formal deal.

"The memorandum tackles troop movement and presence, respect of sovereignty, direct arrests and direct immunity," he said.

Iraq's government has felt increasingly confident in recent weeks about its authority and the country's improved stability.

Parliament said Monday it would vote July 15 whether to approve provincial elections originally scheduled for Oct. 1. But a senior election official said it was impossible to hold the elections on schedule. If the vote is to be held before the end of the year, parliament must approve the elections by the end of July, said Judge Qassim al-Aboudi.

Violence in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level in four years. The change has been driven by the 2007 buildup of American forces, the Sunni tribal revolt against al Qaeda in Iraq and crackdowns against Shiite militias and Sunni extremists.

Despite the gains, frequent attacks continue.

A roadside bomb killed four people and injured three others Monday close to the Iranian border near Khanaqin, 90 miles northeast of Baghdad, said border guard Capt. Sarchel Abdul-Karim.

Another bomb near a dress shop in Baqouba killed one woman Monday and wounded 14 other people, police said. Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, and the surrounding Diyala province remain one of the country's most violent regions.

Also Monday, gunmen killed a member of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, said police, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Al-Maliki's comments Monday came at a meeting with several Arab ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates in the capital, Abu Dhabi.

On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates canceled all its Iraqi debt and moved to restore a full diplomatic mission in Baghdad by naming a new ambassador.

The move was part of a recent warming between Iraq's Shiite-led government and its mostly Sunni Muslim neighbors. Washington has pushed Gulf states like the UAE to restore ties with the war-torn country.

The Emirates' official news agency, WAM, said the debt was $4 billion not including interest. A UAE official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media said the total debt was $7 billion when interest was added.

The White House applauded the Emirates for forgiving the debt and resuming diplomatic operations in Iraq, reported CBS News correspondent Mark Knoller.
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