BAGHDAD – Iraq's government decided Tuesday to formally ask the United States to reopen negotiations on a proposed deal to keep American troops here past the end of the year. The U.S. suggested it may not be ready to offer more concessions.
That cast doubt on whether the agreement can win parliamentary approval by the end of 2008, when the U.N. mandate expires — and with it the legal basis for the U.S. military to operate in Iraq.
The U.S. has warned that without an agreement or an extension of the mandate, military operations would cease, including not only combat operations but also infrastructure projects and aid to Iraq's government.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the decision to ask for more talks was taken after Cabinet members submitted amendments to the draft. They asked Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to present them to the Iraqi negotiating team.
Al-Dabbagh described the amendments as "essential" before the prime minister can submit the draft to parliament. Al-Maliki has said he won't submit the document to the 275-member legislature unless he is confident it can win overwhelming approval.
In Washington, White House press secretary Dana Perino said the Bush administration may talk to the Iraqis about their proposed amendments, but that "it will just be a very high bar for them to clear for us to change anything" in the agreement.
She said that U.S. officials have not seen the amendments list.
"It might be something we can work with, it might not," Perino said. "We have provided them with our best thinking on it, our best offer. We think that the door is pretty much shut on these negotiations."
For nearly two weeks, Iraqi politicians have been considering the draft agreement, which would keep U.S. troops in Iraq through 2011 unless both sides agree that they could stay.
The draft would also give the Iraqis a greater role in supervising U.S. military operations and allow Iraqi courts to try U.S. soldiers and contractors accused of major crimes off duty and off base.
But critics say the draft does not go far enough in protecting Iraqi sovereignty, and major Shiite politicians said last week that the agreement stands little chance of approval in its current form.
One option being floated privately is to ask the U.N. Security Council to renew the mandate for six months or a year until a way out of the deadlock is found. It is unclear whether Russia, China and other council members may raise their own demands and delay the process.
An official at al-Maliki's office said some of the amendments submitted in Tuesday's Cabinet meetings had been forwarded to U.S. diplomats in Baghdad. The official said the changes were mostly attempts to clarify parts of the text that the Cabinet found open to interpretation.
He said the changes were introduced in both the English and Arabic texts of the agreement. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to talk about the discussions.
Neither the official or al-Dabbagh elaborated on the changes. Some Iraqi politicians have complained that the parts dealing with Iraqi jurisdiction were unclear.
They also wanted clarification of the conditions under which U.S. troops might be asked to stay after Dec. 31, 2011.
The agreement, reached after months of tough negotiations, has stirred a political storm in Iraq, with most of the major political groups reluctant to take a clear position for or against the deal.
Only the radical group led by anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has taken a public stand on the agreement. The group, which holds 30 seats in parliament, has rejected it outright.
Al-Maliki has not publicly committed himself to the current draft.
Iraqi leaders have objected to what they describe as unjustified threats by senior American officials about what would happen if the year ends without an agreement or a new mandate.
"I don't think there are any Iraqis who think that they are ready to do this on their own, deep down," Perino said. "Iraq still has a lot of violence that they have to deal with. Our soldiers are the ones who are there to help them deal with it. And they're going to need our help for some time."
In violence Tuesday, four police officers were killed in a drive-by shooting in the turbulent northern city of Mosul, while three civilians were killed and 13 others wounded in a Baghdad car bombing, police said.
Also in the capital, another nine people, including four policemen, were wounded in two separate roadside bombs targeting police convoys.