A key Iraqi lawmaker said yesterday the Bush administration will not meet its July deadline to hammer out a new bilateral security agreement governing U.S. forces in the country because of intense opposition in Iraq to the proposed pact.
Failure to clinch an agreement could leave the U.S. military mission in Iraq in legal limbo and frustrate President Bush's hopes to nail down a long-term strategic alliance with Baghdad before he leaves office in January.
"It is not likely that such an agreement could be concluded or ratified by the parliament in the next six months. There is very strong opposition," said Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister and head of the interim Governing Council who now sits in the Iraqi National Assembly.
Tens of thousands of followers of militant Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr yesterday staged the first of what they say will be weekly protests in Baghdad and other cities against the security deal.
The cleric, a fierce opponent of the U.S. military presence, called the talks "a project of humiliation for the Iraqi people." The Associated Press reported that al-Sadr supporters in Baghdad carried signs reading, "No to America! No to the Occupation!"
The 85-year-old Mr. Pachachi, a member of one of Iraq's most prominent Sunni Muslim families, said at a forum at the Woodrow Wilson Center that many Iraqi lawmakers oppose any long-term strategic deal while the country remains so dependent on U.S. forces to provide basic security.
"The feeling is it would be unwise to the Iraqi government now to commit itself on such a far-reaching matter of importance," he said.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has said it is determined not to renew the U.N. mandate under which some 150,000 American troops and those from 25 other nations operate. The mandate expires at the end of the year.
David Satterfield, the State Department's point man in the Iraqi security negotiations, said the U.S. government wants two new accords - a standard "status of forces" agreement with Iraq like those with other countries where U.S. forces are posted, and a "strategic framework agreement" outlining a broader alliance between the two governments.
He vehemently denied in an interview this week on Al Jazeera television that the agreement would clear the way for permanent U.S. bases in Iraq or tie the hands of the next U.S. administration or future Iraqi governments.
"There is no desire, indeed there is a rejection of permanent bases" in the proposed agreements, Mr. Satterfield said. "We could not be clearer on this point."
Talks began in earnest on the new long-term security pact in March. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said earlier this month the two sides are "making progress" in the talks, but there has been virtually no public discussions of the substance of the negotiations.
Despite Mr. Satterfield's assurances, there remains deep skepticism both in Baghdad and in the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress about the accord.
Prominent Shi'ite and Sunni politicians have come out against the agreement in recent days.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, whose United Iraqi Alliance is one of the main Shi'ite parties supporting the al-Maliki government, said unspecified parts of the draft agreement would "violate Iraq's national sovereignty."
Omar al-Jabburi, a Sunni lawmaker, told the Arab-language Aswat al-Iraq newspaper that any security deal would inevitably be a bargain between unequal parties.
"Iraq is still a country under occupation and, consequently, any pact arrived at in these difficult circumstances will be deemed to be not agreed to," he said.
Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which has ties to the Sunni armed resistance, vowed in a statement this week to fight any bilateral security agreement.
"The nationalist forces will take it upon themselves to reply to those responsible, ... and without a doubt there will be a new price to pay in the blood of pious martyrs," the statement warned.
More worrisome for U.S. negotiators, Iraqi press reports say Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most influential Shi'ite cleric, has privately expressed reservations about the accord and wants a national referendum on any agreement negotiated - a vote that Iraqi government could well lose.
Most of the attention in the United States has focused on the question of permanent bases and troop levels in Iraq, but private analysts say there are other sticking points in the talks. Among them: the legal status and immunity from Iraqi law of tens of thousands of private contractors working with U.S. forces.
Mr. Pachachi said yesterday most Iraqis accept for now the need for U.S. and foreign troops to provide security in the short- and medium-term, blaming the al-Maliki government for failing to rid the Iraqi security forces of influence by sectarian militias.
"Most Iraqis would prefer that there were no foreign troops in the country, but right now we have a situation in which our security forces are not reliable," he said.