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Outside View: Iraq-U.S. troop deal

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by Maria Appakova
Moscow (UPI) Nov 4, 2008
Iraqis once again have not lived up to U.S. expectations.

The Iraqi Council of Ministers has decided to try to amend the draft of the U.S.-Iraqi strategic partnership agreement concerning the legal status, operational posture and possible withdrawal timetable of American troops from Iraq.

This likely will result in resumed U.S.-Iraqi talks, despite the fact that both parties recently stated they had reached a compromise deal that was to be officially adopted.

It is likely that finishing negotiations is something the next U.S. president will have to deal with, and Iraqis are anxiously awaiting the results of today's election. Washington seems to be so disappointed that it has dropped hints about suspending its operations in Iraq. But can it allow itself to behave like a petulant child?

"There is great reluctance to engage further in the drafting process," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the press. "I don't think that the door has been slammed shut, but I would say it's pretty far closed," he added.

According to Gates, a failure to reach a new Status of Forces Agreement, or (as an alternative) to renew the current U.N. mandate for Multi-National Force-Iraq, which expires on Dec. 31, will mean a suspension of U.S. operations in Iraq.

"We basically will stop doing anything," Gates said.

The Pentagon chief also pointed out that he has heard no discussion in the U.S. government of seeking a renewed U.N. mandate, which would require a vote by the U.N. Security Council.

"Going back to the U.N. at this point, there's no assurance that you'd get a clean rollover. So that's not a solution that is free from peril," Gates underscored.

But is it possible Americans could get so offended that they would withdraw from Iraq, thereby admitting complete helplessness and acknowledging the futility of the military campaign there? Are they going to give terrorists a chance to settle down in Iraq? Or are they just blackmailing Iraqis, being aware of the fact that the presence of foreign troops is of vital importance to them? Baghdad has been unable to settle security issues itself despite the palpable progress in this area, and the U.N. mandate expires at the end of this year.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that Americans were indeed attempting to blackmail Iraqis. According to the diplomat, Americans sent Iraqis a clear message: Unless the latter signed an agreement with the United States, they would lose, and the U.N. Security Council would not renew the mandate for the Multi-National Force, since Russia would veto the resolution.

Lavrov did not give the names of those who are behind such provocations. However, he does not even need to specify it, provided what Gates has said. In any case, Moscow assured Baghdad that if it wishes, the U.N. mandate will be renewed -- at least Russia won't be the one to impede it.

However, Americans are in no hurry to raise this question at the U.N. Security Council. Staying in Iraq in accordance with an international mandate is one thing, but having a strategic partnership treaty and receiving dividends from it is quite another matter.

Yet Washington has no choice -- it cannot take offense at Iraqis and pull out its troops from Iraq. It won't be able to attach the blame for withdrawal to Russia, since Moscow does not mind Americans continuing their presence there for a while, and Russia is not in favor of an upsurge of terror in the region, after all. The long-term agreement between Baghdad and Washington, however, is another matter. Moscow, which has its own interests in the Persian Gulf region, cannot help reacting to the document. However, it is obvious it is not Moscow's stance that makes Iraqis anxiously await the results of the negotiations with Washington.

Only Iraqi Kurds support the current draft of the agreement, which is not surprising -- the United States has turned into their security guarantor. Moqtada Sadr's attitude is also natural -- the Shiite leader has dismissed the document in principle, urging the pullout of foreign militaries from Iraq immediately. Sadr has stuck to this position for a couple of years, and there is no reason for changing it now. But why is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who participated in the negotiations with the United States, against the document?

During a news conference one of the most influential members of Parliament, Humam Hamoudi, cited the prime minister as saying during the recent intergovernmental discussions over the agreement, "What (the Americans) have given with their right hand they have taken away with their left hand. ... For example, they said that U.S. forces will withdraw from towns by June 2009, if the security situation permits that. But who will decide that?" Hamoudi asked on behalf of Iraqis.

These concerns are easy to understand -- they regard Iraq's sovereignty, its future. But it took a long time to draft the document, and a lot has been changed. Some of the changes are so drastic that even U.S. congressmen doubt whether Washington will benefit from the agreement.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton stated that he is "deeply concerned" with what he heard. Skelton is referring to the agreement's provisions that recently leaked to the press, which include, for example, the Iraqi government's ability to put American servicemen and private security companies' personnel on trial for crimes they committed while on leave and outside military bases.

It must be said that if this provision really has been included in the draft, it is quite a victory for the Iraqi government.

Clearly, Baghdad should be satisfied with what it already has gained -- even more so, because Americans are determined not to allow for concessions anymore. What do Iraqi ministers hope to accomplish by proposing new amendments to the agreement? Are they waiting for a new, more flexible U.S. administration? Or trying to save face in the eyes of their own people, understanding that Parliament, where tensions are even more intense than in the government, is likely to turn down the draft?

To some extent, the U.S.-Iraqi cooperation agreement fell victim to inner political chaos in Iraq. In recent years Baghdad has not adopted a single strategically important law; both the government and Parliament were on the verge of breakup several times. The United States has to deal with the administrative system that it established in Iraq.

Also, according to numerous sources in Iraq, Tehran is behind the Iraqi politicians' sluggishness in their talks with Washington. Maliki, who counts Sadr, the Shiite popular leader, among his key opponents, does not want to quarrel with Iran. But you can't have it both ways -- satisfying Washington and Tehran simultaneously is a difficult art to master.

The present situation with the agreement could drag on forever. The outcome depends on the relations between the United States and Iran, but it is hard to predict their future.

Nevertheless, who knows what the next U.S. president will be guided by: He won't have George Bush's commitments, neither before Americans nor Iraqis. You never know what the United States might consider profitable with the economic crisis growing -- to return soldiers home or unleash another war in the region.

(Maria Appakova is a political commentator for RIA Novosti, which first published a version of this article. The opinions expressed herein are the author's alone.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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Analysis: U.S., Iraq wrangle over troops
Samara, Iraq (UPI) Nov 4, 2008
The question of whether U.S. military forces will remain in Iraq next year, and, if so, how they will conduct operations, is still unsettled between Washington and Baghdad as wrangling continues over a proposed Status of Forces Agreement.

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