Washington (AFP) Oct 29, 2008
US President George W. Bush on Wednesday promised to consider Baghdad's proposed changes to a controversial US-Iraq security pact, but warned against shifts that risked "undermining" the accord.
"We received amendments today from the government. We're analyzing those amendments. We obviously want to be helpful and constructive without undermining basic principles," he told reporters.
Bush, who did not spell out what sorts of changes to the planned Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) would be unacceptable, declared he was "very hopeful and confident that the SOFA will get passed."
The US president spoke as he held White House talks with Massud Barzani, the president of Iraq's northern Kurdish government, which has given the embattled SOFA consistent and vocal support.
"We do believe that it is in the interest of the Iraqi government, it's in the interest of this country, and we have been and we will continue to support it and support its ratification," Barzani said through an interpreter.
Bush, who leaves office January 20, discussed the agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Monday, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, without offering further details.
The US president had hoped to have the accord in hand by July 31, but now is all but certain not to see it approved before the November 4 elections to choose his successor.
The draft version has drawn fire from Iraqi political figures on grounds that it undermines their war-torn country's sovereignty, likely to be a key theme in local and regional elections set for January 31.
Radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr opposes the pact, while top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has warned through a statement from his office that any final deal must not harm Iraqi sovereignty.
The Iraqi cabinet on Tuesday authorized Maliki to negotiate changes in the pact, which will lay out the rights and responsibilities of US forces in Iraq beyond December 2008 when their present UN mandate expires.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Geoff Morrell said proposed Iraqi amendments to the draft accord "are in the process of being translated and they will then be evaluated by our team. This process, I believe, will likely take several days."
"We want to be very deliberate about this, want to have a clear understanding of what precisely the changes they are looking to make entail," he said. "It is our intention, certainly, to listen to them, to pay them proper respect."
Under the current proposal, the fruit of seven months of often difficult negotiations, US forces will withdraw from Iraqi cities by 2009 and from the whole country by 2011.
It also gives Iraq the power to prosecute US soldiers who are accused of committing serious crimes outside their bases and when off duty.
Iraq's national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie, one of the negotiators, said the security deal would prevent the US military from launching attacks on Iraq's neighbours.
"There is a very clear article in the SOFA draft that says the US cannot, should not, launch any operation from Iraqi soil against other countries," Rubaie told reporters in the central city of Kut.
His comments followed the weekend raid by US troops on a village in northeast Syria which Damascus said killed eight civilians.
A US official on Monday said the incursion targeted a top Iraqi smuggler of foreign fighters who used the area just inside Syria to launch attacks.
earlier related report
"Anything that they would want to change would have to clear a very high bar for us. We think that the door is pretty much shut on these negotiations," spokeswoman Dana Perino said as Baghdad planned to push for changes.
But Perino said Washington was not completely closing off prospects for new talks, stressing that doing so "would be irresponsible" until US officials see the proposed amendments to the agreement.
"It's a little premature for me to say what we would or would not accept. I would just say that it's going to be very hard for us to accept any changes. And I think that the Iraqis know that," said the spokeswoman.
She spoke after the Iraqi cabinet authorized Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to negotiate changes in the security pact, which sets in motion a timeline for the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.
The accord, known as a States of Forces Agreement (SOFA), will lay out the rights and responsibilities of US forces in Iraq after the UN mandate that provides a legal underpinning for their presence expires in late 2008.
"We came their way on a few things and they came our way on a few things. So that's what you get in a negotiation," Perino said of the latest draft version. "We provided our best thinking on it, our best offer."
Asked whether Washington was considering a renewed UN mandate if the talks fall apart, Perino replied that was "certainly not our preference" and underlined that US officials were "confident" of getting a final agreement.
At the same time, the spokeswoman warned "there will be consequences" if there is no accord, warning that Iraq's security forces are not "ready to do this on their own."
"Even just yesterday, we saw two of our soldiers who were killed in a suicide bombing. So Iraq still has a lot of violence that they have to deal with. Our soldiers are the ones who are there to help them deal with it. And they're going to need our help for some time," she said.
The latest draft also offers powers to the Iraqis to prosecute American soldiers and civilians for "serious crimes" committed outside their bases and when off-duty.
Iraqi lawmaker Mahmud Othman said these powers were not enough and Iraqis must be able to prosecute US soldiers for crimes committed during operations.
"What happens if incidents like Haditha occur again?" he asked, referring to the massacre of 24 Iraqis in 2005 in Haditha in Iraq's Anbar province allegedly by US Marines who went on a rampage after a comrade was killed by a bomb.
US officials warn that failure to secure a pact by December 31 will leave US troops with no legal framework to operate in Iraq, and will force them to retrench themselves in their bases.
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Failure of pact threatens Iraq's progress: US military
Baghdad (AFP) Oct 29, 2008
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