By Mary Beth Sheridan and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 19, 2008
BAGHDAD, Oct. 19 -- The Iraqi parliament's biggest political bloc is calling for all American troops to leave this country by the end of 2011 as a condition for approving a new agreement extending the U.S. military presence in Iraq, a senior official said Sunday.
The United Iraqi Alliance is also insisting that Iraq have a bigger role in determining whether U.S. soldiers accused of wrongdoing are subjected to prosecution in Iraqi courts.
If the conditions are not met, "I cannot see that this agreement will see the light," said Sami al-Askeri, a Shiite parliamentarian and political adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
It was not immediately clear if the U.S. would accept the conditions, which would make significant changes to the draft agreement produced in recent days. The bilateral accord is aimed at replacing a United Nations mandate that provides the legal authority for U.S. troops to be in Iraq. It expires on Dec. 31.
The Bush administration has resisted setting firm dates for the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq, saying it should be based on security conditions. U.S. authorities ultimately accepted a compromise in the agreement, which set a withdrawal date of the end of 2011 but provided for an extension by mutual agreement.
Askeri said the possibility of an extension raised concerns among members of the Shiite bloc, who met on Saturday night.
"Some people say, what's going on?" he said. "This article opens the door to the next government" of Iraq to lengthen the U.S. troops' stay, he said. Iraq holds national elections next year.
On the issue of legal jurisdiction, the draft accord says that U.S. forces can be subject to Iraqi law if they are accused of a major crime while outside their bases and off-duty. American troops rarely leave their bases when not on official missions, so it would appear that soldiers would rarely, if ever, be subject to Iraqi law.
Askeri said that lawmakers did not want U.S. military authorities to make the decision on when a soldier was considered off-duty. That determination should be made by a joint committee, and if they deadlocked, it should go to an Iraqi court, he said. The Pentagon insists on having sole legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops in most foreign countries.
The draft status of forces agreement was being discussed Sunday night by the Iraqi Political Council for National Security, an advisory body of senior executive, legislative and judicial officials. If the council gives it the green light, the accord is to be sent to the Cabinet and the Parliament for approval.
The concerns voiced by Shiite lawmakers are the first major hurdle in what many U.S. and Iraqi officials anticipate will be a contentious and drawn-out process.
"We continue to be in discussion with the Iraqis and the Iraqis continue to discuss this amongst themselves," said Susan Ziadeh, the spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "That's to be expected. We'll see where these discussions lead."
Lawmakers aligned with Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr are the most vocal critics of an agreement that would extend the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq. They control 30 seats in the 275-seat Parliament, while the Shiite alliance has 85. Sadr leaders convened a large demonstration in Baghdad on Saturday during which thousands marched to express their opposition to the accord.
Kurdish lawmakers, who make up the second biggest block in parliament, support a deal. Leaders of Sunni blocs have not publicly expressed a strong opinion for or against the proposed agreement, saying they need time to examine the draft.
Discussions about contentious bills have stalled in Iraq's parliament for months amid bickering and deadlocks. Many lawmakers are likely to be particularly sensitive to the potential political ramifications of their stance on the agreement because it is expected to come up for a vote weeks before provincial elections.