Deal Delayed on Status of U.S. Forces in Iraq

U.S. and Iraqi officials will delay finalizing an agreement on the post-occupation role of American troops until after power has been formally handed to the next Iraqi government June 30, members of the current Iraqi leadership said Monday.

The legal basis for U.S. troops operating in any foreign country normally is spelled out in a legal arrangement called a status of forces agreement, which defines legal protections for U.S. troops. Without it, U.S. troops in Iraq would be subject to local Iraqi law, once Iraq's sovereignty is restored.

The agreement was to have been concluded by the end of March.

But the troop plan has become the latest in a series of deals to be disrupted in the dispute over how to choose the next Iraqi government.

The lack of agreement will not affect the presence of U.S. forces, but it could leave their relationship with Iraqi security forces undefined along with rules of engagement. There also could be a question of who would prosecute U.S. soldiers charged with crimes while serving in the country.

Top American occupation and military officials seemed unconcerned that an agreement would not be signed before the transition, saying U.S. troops will stay in Iraq as long as they are welcome.

"The consensus is there is a role for U.S. forces here," said Dan Senor, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.

Iraqi Governing Council (search) member Adnan Pachachi said the status of forces agreement should wait until a provisional government takes power June 30 because the U.S.-picked 25-member council "is not considered sufficiently representative." The council serves as a temporary Iraqi administration.

Mahmoud Othman, a Sunni Muslim (search) member of the council, said the Americans "prefer to make a deal with a government with sovereignty, not now with the Iraqi Governing Council."

But Othman said he preferred to reach an agreement before then to strengthen the credibility of the incoming government.

"They should give more authority to Iraqis from a security point of view," he said. If a deal is delayed "sovereignty will be given but it will not be a credible or a real one. People are already talking about fake sovereignty."

U.S. and Iraqi officials are trying to work out an alternative method for picking the provisional government, after the original American plan was dismissed by Iraq's powerful Shiite clergy as "illegitimate." Shiite leaders had demanded elections before June 30, but the United Nations has ruled that unfeasible.

The U.S. plan had called for the government to be picked by regional caucuses. But most council members now oppose that formula. Washington now wants to expand the Governing Council to make it more representative and hand it sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the council is due to finish an interim constitution this week for approval by L. Paul Bremer (search), the top U.S. administrator. Bremer has said the final draft of the document, also known as the basic law, will deal with the two contentious issues of federalism and the role of Islam in the government.

But if members can't agree on some issues, they may have to save them until a permanent document is written, after national elections for delegates in early 2005.

Key points in defining Kurdish self-rule are still unresolved, including how to divide the Kurdish region's oil and other resources, whether Kurds can keep their armed militias and what areas will be defined as falling under Kurds' federal control, Othman said.

An adviser to Kurdish council member Jalal Talabani, however, opposed any postponement, saying "it must be formatted in the basic law."

Kurds are looking to maintain the autonomy they have had in northern Iraq for the last decade of Saddam Hussein's rule and want to keep their militias, saying they are needed to protect their rights.