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General in Iraq: Deal letting U.S. troops stay may break down

- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

SAMARRA, Iraq | In a blunt assessment, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, said Thursday that there is a 20 percent to 30 percent chance that the United States and Iraq won't reach a deal to allow U.S. troops to operate in Iraq past Dec. 31.

On a scale of one to 10, "I'm probably a seven or eight that something is going to be worked out," Gen. Odierno told The Washington Times during a visit to the 101st Airborne Division in Samarra, about 120 miles north of Baghdad. "I think it's important for the government of Iraq. I think it's important for security and stability here."

Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government, told The Times on Wednesday evening that he would be happy to host U.S. troops if the central government in Baghdad refuses to do so.

"The people of Kurdistan highly appreciate the sacrifices American forces have made for our freedom," Mr. Barzani said at a reception in Washington after meetings with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

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A draft U.S.-Iraq accord was reached earlier this month, but Iraqi officials faced domestic opposition after the details were leaked and asked Washington for amendments.

Several Iraqi officials and analysts have said that they doubt that the Iraqi parliament will approve a deal before the end of the year, when a U.N. mandate governing U.S. forces in Iraq expires.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Thursday: "I do think it will be hard for Iraq to pass it."

Without a new mandate, all U.S. military activity in Iraq will have to cease or be in violation of international law. Troops could be confined to bases, and vital support operations for Iraqi forces -- training, transportation, communication, air control -- would end.

"We have to have a legal framework to stay here," said Gen. Odierno, who recently replaced Gen. David H. Petraeus as commander of the 152,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

Gen. Odierno said he sent Iraqi government ministers last week a detailed outline of the operational consequences of failure to obtain a bilateral agreement or an extension of the U.N. mandate: U.S. military projects that employ thousands of Iraqis would shut down; training of Iraqi forces would stop as would joint operations; air traffic control over Iraq would cease; border security would be Iraq's sole concern; and communications and logistics support for Iraqi security forces would end.

"What they were provided was [PowerPoint slides] that showed this is the support we give that we might have to pull back," he said. "We provided that to all the leaders."

The draft accord calls for U.S. forces to leave Iraqi cities by June 30 and combat troops to exit by the end of 2011, unless requested to stay. Sticking points have included provisions for Iraqi legal jurisdiction over U.S. personnel and control over military operations.

Some factions in the coalition government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have asked for an ironclad deadline for U.S. withdrawal. Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has warned that an "elite" militia is being formed to fight U.S. troops.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most respected Shi'ite leader, insists that any agreement be ratified by the Iraqi parliament.

In addition, Iraq's powerful neighbor Iran openly opposes an agreement.

"The bottom line is the government of Iran has their own issues here," Gen. Odierno said. "I think they do not want the government of the United States here in Iraq. They do not want a long-term relationship between Iraq and the United States. And ultimately, I think that's the issue here."

Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service, said he doubts an agreement will be finalized, in part because of Iranian opposition. The Iraqi central government is dominated by Shi'ites who are close to Tehran.

"Iran was ambivalent about the U.S. presence" while U.S. forces were fighting Iraqi Sunni Muslims, Mr. Katzman said, adding that now that U.S. forces are working with the Sunnis, "they want us out."

Mr. Barzani said Wednesday that he still hoped a deal could be reached but suggested that Kurdistan could be a fallback.

He touted the relative stability of the Kurdish areas compared with the rest of the country.

"No American soldier has shed a drop of blood, not even in a traffic accident, in our region," he said. "Kurdistan will not be part of the problems of Iraq but part of the solution."

Whether the Kurds could invite U.S. forces to redeploy into their region without an overall agreement is legally questionable.

The Iraqi Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the issue. But Feisal Istrabadi, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, said the Iraqi Constitution states that foreign and defense policy are under the exclusive control of the central government.

Mr. Barzani "would love to have American troops, but legally he can't" unless Kurdistan secedes, said Mr. Istrabadi, who helped draft Iraq's first post-Saddam Hussein constitution.

U.S. officials have long had a close relationship with the Kurds, whose region has enjoyed autonomy since the 1991 Gulf War. Mr. Katzman said Iraqi Kurds have welcomed the idea of U.S. bases, but not previously in the context of a U.S. failure to reach an agreement with the central government in Baghdad.

"If the U.S. has no mandate to stay, redeploying to the north would not be a substitute," Mr. Katzman said. "You couldn't accomplish your security mission in the south from bases in the north."

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Gen. Odierno said the capability of Iraqi forces has improved greatly, but they still "need logistics, they need aviation support, they need a little bit of fire" support. "They still need some training with our leaders as well, and partnering is the best way ahead for them."

"I think a bit longer -- a year, 18 months more -- of partnering with these units will make a whole lot of difference for them and a lot of them will be able to stand on their own."

Barbara Slavin reported from Washington.