A More Confident Iraq Becomes a Tougher Negotiating Partner for the U.S.

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A More Confident Iraq Becomes a Tougher Negotiating Partner for the U.S.

Post by Kiny0625 on Fri Jul 11, 2008 2:47 am

By STEVEN LEE MYERS
Published: July 10, 2008

WASHINGTON
— The Bush administration’s quest for a deal with Iraq that would
formally authorize an unlimited American troop presence there well
beyond President Bush’s tenure appears to be unraveling. The irony is
that it may be a victim of the administration’s successes in the war.

Prime
Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq and his senior aides are now
openly demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, at
least on paper. That is partly a nod to Iraqi political realities,
since Iraqi politicians must call for the end of American occupation.
No one in Iraq realistically expects to throw out the Americans anytime
soon — and few in Iraq believe that it would be safe to do so
immediately.

But Mr. Maliki’s once enfeebled government, emboldened by several recent military successes, is eager to assert its sovereignty.

The Iraqi demands have put Mr. Bush in a politically awkward spot.

The
president has explicitly opposed any binding timetables — either from
the Iraqis or from the war’s critics here at home — but he also pledged
less than a month ago to abide by the will of Iraq’s leaders.

“You
know, of course, we’re there at their invitation,” Mr. Bush said in
Paris during his recent European tour. “This is a sovereign nation.”

This
new Iraqi confidence is easy to overstate, and many of the statements
simply prove that Iraq’s democracy has matured to the point that
elected leaders there must pander to important constituencies, even if
they quietly acknowledge the need for American military support for the
foreseeable future.

Still, even senior American commanders now
say that Iraq is taking on more responsibility for security after years
of halting and uncertain progress. Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, who until
recently oversaw the training of Iraqi forces, told Congress on
Wednesday that Iraq’s ground forces could be fully functional as soon
as the middle of next year.

That, along with Iraqi military
successes in Basra, Sadr City in Baghdad and Mosul, has made Mr.
Maliki’s government seem far less vulnerable than it once did.

As
a result, officials and analysts say, Iraq is far less willing than it
once might have been to accept every American demand in negotiations
now under way to establish the legal status of foreign troops in Iraq
after the end of this year.

Iraq’s negotiators have already
rebuffed the administration’s initial demand that all American
contractors in Iraq, including the security guards of companies like
Blackwater, receive blanket immunity from prosecution, one
administration official familiar with the talks said.

On
Monday, Mr. Maliki also suggested that Iraq might prefer a less
sweeping, shorter-term agreement than the long-term one he and Mr. Bush
signed off on last November, when his government was nowhere near as
stable or assertive as it is today.

The failure to reach a
robust agreement would be a rebuke to Mr. Bush in his waning months in
office just as his strategy to send thousands of extra troops to Iraq
beginning last year — the “surge,” as it became known — is bearing
fruit. That could force the administration to compromise even more.

While
the administration almost certainly will not accept a rigid, written
timetable for withdrawal, one American official said on Wednesday that
the White House might have to accept some language in any agreement
that reflected Iraqi desires for an end of the American military
presence.

Another American official in Baghdad said an accord
could even include a statement like Senator John McCain’s campaign
proposal envisioning an end of the war in 2013, without setting a
meaningful timetable. Iraq’s national security adviser, Mowaffak
al-Rubaie, on Wednesday clarified his remarks about a timetable for
ending combat operations and withdrawing foreign troops to say that
Iraq was seeking “planning time horizons.”

The White House sought to play down the significance of the differences.

“I
know people are looking at this as a sign of a split between the United
States and Iraq,” a spokesman, Tony Fratto, said Wednesday. “I think
these are signs of encouraging developments in Iraq. They want to and
are becoming much more adept at providing their own security.”

Beneath
the public statements of officials on both sides lies a more
complicated reality, involving difficult diplomatic and legal questions.

Once
the current United Nations mandate for the American-led military
operation in Iraq expires at the end of the year, for example,
something has to replace it. That is largely why administration
officials remain confident that they will ultimately be able to reach
an agreement, though the shape of it appears increasingly uncertain.

At
a minimum, the White House has lost control of the stagecraft of the
pending agreement — if not yet a deal itself — as the question of the
future American role in Iraq becomes a fixture of election campaigns in
both countries.

Democrats in Congress have intensified their
objections to the negotiations because they would prefer to see a
President Obama complete them. Mr. Maliki’s government has to sell any
agreement to a fractured and restive alliance of political parties with
varying degrees of patience for any American military presence.

“Even the technical and mundane becomes a potential political issue,” the administration official familiar with the talks said.

The
official noted that the discussions involved everything from the
broadest question of authorizing combat operations to the minutia of
whether American soldiers will need to have Iraqi driver’s licenses.

All
of the main Iraqi parties, the officials and analysts said, share the
goal of at least minimizing the American footprint, reflecting Iraq’s
desire to be sovereign and free. Although much remains uncertain, and
the improvements potentially fragile, the drop in violence in Iraq — to
the lowest levels since February 2004, according to the latest report
by the American command in Baghdad — has made it possible to consider
Iraq free and sovereign sooner than most anyone expected.

“In
one sense,” said Michael E. O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in
Washington, “the best thing will be the United States getting booted
out of Iraq once the Iraqis can provide their own security.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/10/world/middleeast/10policy.html?em&ex=1215835200&en=9fc

Kiny0625

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