WASHINGTON – The Iraqi government may be "playing chicken" with the Bush administration, running the clock down to America's Nov. 4 presidential election in order to get a better deal on the official status of U.S. troops in Iraq beyond next year.
That's the claim of several foreign policy analysts contacted by FOXNews.com on Monday, one day after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling Shiite coalition withheld its support for a draft agreement guiding the future status of U.S. troops there.
Al-Maliki found rare agreement with supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who marched in the streets over the weekend against the agreement, saying it doesn't call for a quicker withdrawal of U.S. troops.
Meanwhile, the 275-seat Iraqi parliament isn't inspiring much confidence that it will ratify the draft in its current form.
This pushback on the Iraqi side — plus objections by some U.S. members of Congress who say they did not have enough input on the agreement — has created a complicated wall of obstacles to the so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which must be completed by Dec. 31, when the United Nations resolution authorizing the foreign troop presence in Iraq expires.
According to published reports, the Bush administration has already conceded to the Iraqis on a timetable, agreeing to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Baghdad and other key cities by June 2009, with troops leaving the country entirely by the end of 2011.
But the White House has made little reference to the diplomatic process. In a briefing last week, Press Secretary Dana Perino would say only that the negotiations are ongoing.
"We are getting closer to having this agreement worked out," she said on Friday, without offering specifics about what the Bush administration is calling an "aspirational date" for withdrawal or the jurisdictional issues regarding troops and contractors.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether the administration will have to get approval from Congress for any troops deal with Iraq, including the broader "strategic framework agreement" that is also being negotiated and would guide the larger strategic relationship between the two countries moving forward.
White House negotiators have reportedly agreed to provisions in which American troops and contractors who are charged with committing serious crimes would be subject to Iraqi law — a measure that is sure to draw fire from U.S. lawmakers, said Brian Katulis, a national security expert with the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress.
Katulis said religious Sharia law remains a guiding principle in the Iraqi constitution, and that could put American troops and contractors in jeopardy.
"That should give Americans pause about putting our troops into the legal system there," said Katulis, who favors kicking the agreement to the next administration, perhaps by approaching the U.N. Security Council for an extension of the current resolution until the new White House can settle in and broker an agreement with the Iraqis.
That option has been raised, but Security Council members Russia and China might not cooperate with such a request.
"It's a little troublesome that this lame-duck administration is trying to seal the deal in the 11th hour," said Katulis. He said that, given the current economic crisis, an agreement hammered out behind closed doors might be hard to swallow when a new Congress and new president takes over next year — especially if that president is Barack Obama, who has favored a 16-month withdrawal of troops from the time he takes office.
Meanwhile, Congressman Joe Sestak, D-Pa., said he questions Iraq's judicial independence.
"I could not support a status of forces agreement that appear to hand over American service members to a still fairly inept and corrupt Iraqi judicial system," Sestak said in a statement to FOXNews.com. "The judicial independence in the Iraqi system is more than suspect, and no son or daughter of an American should be tried in that system until it meets the due process of law, which is presently absent."
Sestak suggested a new U.N. Security Council resolution legally authorizing a continued U.S. presence or an informal agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
Last month, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., proposed not only mandating congressional approval, but going to the U.N. to get the necessary extension in order to leave the issue up to the next administration.
“We are now faced with the reality that the United Nations mandate will expire at a time when we have hundreds of thousands of Americans on the ground in that country,” said Webb, who is a member of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.
“Many of my colleagues and I started warning last November that the intention of this administration was to proceed purely with an executive agreement, to drag this out until the Congress was going to go out of session, then to present the executive agreement essentially as a fait accompli,” he said at the time.
Others say it is unlikely that either side will allow the clock to run out, and that some agreement will be made before the New Year's Eve deadline, most likely after the Iraqis know who will be America's next president.
"First of all, I think it's very exciting that there are politics going on in Baghdad. This is what we wanted," said James Carafano, director of security studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "People are wanting to take control of their own nation, their own future. The fact they are having a debate is an incredibly healthy sign.
"The last time I looked at the calendar, it wasn't December. The clock has not run out," Carafano added, noting that the Iraqis are likely holding out for the most palatable terms. "Kicking it to the next administration, I would say, not so smart" for the Iraqis who might not end up with the same concessions no matter who is in office next year.
But, he said, "I am sure that an Obama administration would like them to wait so they could sign an agreement and declare victory."
Obama and John McCain have said very little about the SOFA in recent weeks; in the last debate, McCain made a brief mention of the "coming" agreement as an example of improvements on the ground in Iraq.
Gordon Adams, national security studies professor at American University in Washington, said he believed the Iraqis were "playing chicken" with Bush, as al-Maliki remains focused on his own credibility among his constituency. Unlike Bush, even with elections in Iraq, al-Maliki will still be around to see any agreement made today play out in the next year.
"My guess is this will ultimately be signed, but it will be signed at the last minute," Adams said. "Obviously, this will be an easier question to answer after November 4, when we will know the direction a new administration is going to take. I wouldn't be surprised if that is part of the Iraqi strategy."