- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2008

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD | Baghdad will demand changes to the wording of a pact allowing U.S. troops to stay in Iraq but will not seek to renegotiate the “backbone” of the agreement, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday.

“In my opinion and based on my follow-up for the negotiations, I do not think there will be structural amendments. Maybe it will touch the wording and descriptions, possibly, but the backbone of the pact is what has already been agreed on,” Mr. Zebari told Reuters news agency.

Iraq’s Cabinet decided Tuesday to demand amendments to the pact, despite having agreed last week to a “final draft” after months of painstaking negotiations with Washington.

The decision to reopen the negotiations has exasperated Washington, which is worried that its troops could have no legal basis to remain in Iraq beyond the end of this year when a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the force expires.

“There is a great reluctance to engage further in the drafting process,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday. “This is not just kind of a paper exercise. The consequences of not getting an agreement would be real.”

In a sign of the frustration, a State Department official in Washington, who asked not to be named, said one consequence would be that U.S. forces would have to stop providing personal protection to senior Iraqi officials.

So far, Iraqi leaders have been circumspect about what they object to in the draft, which would require U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 and also provide a mechanism for Iraqi courts to try American troops for serious crimes committed off duty.

The government has said it will draw up amendments soon and submit them to U.S. negotiators.

The United States pressed Iraq to accept the pact or state its objections. “We’re running out of time,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. “The door is closing and … it’s time for the Iraqis to step up to the plate and make a decision.”

Mr. Zebari said the Americans have agreed to hear the proposals, though he was unsure whether they would accept them.

“The coming days will be crucial to determine the fate of this pact,” he said. “We were told that they are ready to look into the amendments, but to what extent they will accept them we do not know. We are not at that stage yet.”

If the pact cannot be settled by the end of the year, Iraqi officials say they could seek an emergency extension of the existing U.N. mandate. Mr. Zebari said an extension would let Baghdad negotiate with a new U.S. administration.

“We must begin as an Iraqi government to prepare in case there is no pact. We should look into other alternatives. One of them is to go to U.N. Security Council and ask them to extend the mandate for another year, or six months, until the new administration comes. We have to be ready for such an option,” he said.

The pact has exposed fault lines in Iraq’s ruling coalition of majority Shi’ite Arabs and minority Kurds.

Kurdish factions, whose members include Mr. Zebari and President Jalal Talabani, have endorsed it. But the Shi’ite alliance of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was among the first to demand amendments.

In other developments Wednesday, Iraqi officials reported finding mass graves with the remains of 34 people, most thought to have been Iraqi army recruits waylaid three years ago by al Qaeda gunmen as they traveled to a training base near the Syrian border, the Associated Press reported.

A car bomb exploded Wednesday in the northern city of Mosul, killing four civilians, police said.

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