Wall Street Journal
October 20, 2008
By Gina Chon
BAGHDAD -- A group of Iraq's top political leaders decided late Sunday they will forward to the country's cabinet this week a draft security pact with the U.S., marking another step toward approval of an agreement on the terms for a continued American military presence here.
The Political Council for National Security didn't technically endorse the agreement, but decided simply to forward the draft -- which sets 2011 as the goal for the withdrawal of American combat troops -- to Iraq's full cabinet for consideration. It then falls to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his ministers to forward the draft to parliament, where opposition against the deal could be intense.
The national-security council will officially forward the draft to the cabinet on Tuesday, according to two people at the meeting. It is unclear whether Mr. Maliki and his cabinet will hold up the draft. Iraqi politicians have sent mixed messages about support for the deal, but if the cabinet decides to forward it to parliament, lawmakers may take it up as early as later this week.
Hours before the meeting Sunday night, a key bloc of Shiite political parties in parliament, the United Iraqi Alliance, issued a statement saying more talks and changes were needed before the agreement could be approved. Because the alliance includes Mr. Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, that statement was taken initially as a sign that the draft, which has been negotiated by Iraqi and U.S. officials for months, had hit another snag.
But the alliance's problems with the deal -- including the wording of articles concerning legal jurisdiction over American soldiers and the withdrawal dates for U.S. troops -- weren't considered significant enough by the security-council group to keep the pact from moving forward, according to two people who attended the council meeting.
The current draft calls for immunity for U.S. troops from Iraqi law, except in extreme cases while they are off duty. Lawmaker Sami al-Askary, who is close to Mr. Maliki, said the Shiite alliance wanted to give the Iraqi government the authority to decide whether U.S. soldiers are off duty. The draft says the U.S. would make that decision.
"The agreement will face problems in parliament if the language stays the same on jurisdiction," Mr. Askary said.
The compromise strips immunity from American soldiers who commit "grave premeditated felonies...when such crimes are committed outside agreed facilities and areas and outside duty status," according to the latest version of the agreement, a copy of which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
The agreement states that in situations where U.S. soldiers could be prosecuted in an Iraqi court, troops "shall be entitled to due process standards and protections consistent with those available under U.S. and Iraqi law."
The draft also says U.S. troops would leave at the end of 2011, although forces could be asked to stay longer to help train and support Iraqi security forces beyond that date. As a precursor to that drawdown, American combat soldiers would pull out of cities by the end of June 2009 and move to bases outside those areas, a move that has already begun in many parts of Iraq.
"United States forces shall withdraw from Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011," the agreement states.
The pact is needed to provide a legal basis for the presence of U.S. troops here after a United Nations mandate ends this year.
Discussions on the agreement have been complicated by inter-Shia political tensions ahead of provincial elections, which could take place in January.
"We should be aware that if we make any mistakes on the agreement, it will be used against us by the other side in national politics," said Sheikh Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, a lawmaker and senior member of the biggest Shiite political party, the Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq.
If the draft gets to the 275-member parliament, it will require a simple majority for passage. Thirty lawmakers aligned with anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have already said they would oppose the deal. On Saturday, about 150,000 protesters staged a demonstration against the agreement.
Approval from Kurdish and Shiite lawmakers, who control a majority of seats in parliament and have traditionally voted together, would be enough to pass the deal. But other legislation that appeared headed for approval in parliament has stalled.