Hopes fading for US, Iraq security deal

Bush officials wary of effort to change pact

By Matthew Lee
Associated Press / October 31, 2008
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WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's hopes for sealing a security deal with Iraq while in office are fading as Iraqis demand changes to a draft text that some US officials consider unacceptable.

"The window for any kind of discussions, negotiations is rapidly coming to a close," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said yesterday.

Wood said officials continue to review the Iraqi proposal for changes, but he repeated the administration's insistence that the existing draft is a "good text."

US spokesmen insist that an agreement governing American troops in Iraq is possible by the end of the year. At the same time, administration officials are troubled by the proposed Iraqi amendments to a text US negotiators had thought was complete. Those amendments include broader Iraqi jurisdiction over US forces and the elimination of a clause that would let them stay after a tentative 2011 deadline.

Even if compromises can be found on those issues, there is no guarantee that the Iraqi Parliament will approve the so-called Status of Forces Agreement. Failure to bridge the gaps would leave two options: Extend the UN mandate beyond its Dec. 31 expiration date or suspend all US operations in Iraq.

"I do think it will be hard for Iraq to pass it," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, told the Washington Post he was doubtful an agreement would be passed by the Iraqi Cabinet and Parliament by the end of the year.

"If it was easy, it would already have been done," Perino said. "If you stick around, I'm sure by tomorrow you'll have a different Iraqi politician or leader with a different sentiment."

Perino said the administration remained hopeful and confident that it will be able to reach a deal with the Iraqis, but that it will not compromise underlying principles of the pact. Asked when the administration will decide to move forward to get an extension of the UN mandate, she replied: "I'm not going to forecast any alternatives, because our sole focus is working on this."

The White House, State Department, and Pentagon all refused yesterday to discuss possible alternatives to securing a deal, saying they are reviewing Iraq's proposed amendments received Wednesday.

But officials bristled at suggestions that negotiations, which ran from May until this month, could be reopened. They also insisted that they are not yet looking at extending the United Nations mandate.

"Once we have something to say on it, we will," Wood told reporters. "But for the moment, we're just taking our time in reviewing it to make sure that we've got a good sense of what it is the Iraqis have put forward."

Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to discuss details of the Iraqi proposal and said it would take "more than a couple of days to review the recommended changes."

But privately, US officials briefed on the Iraqi amendments are growing pessimistic about the chances to reach a deal.

One official said there was a chance that some of the four main points of contention - the withdrawal deadline, demand for inspections of US arms shipments, a ban on using Iraqi territory for attacks on neighboring states, and Iraqi demands for more jurisdiction over American soldiers - could be "finessed." But Iraqi demands for more control over American troops probably crossed a "red line" for the administration and Congress.

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