Analysis: Al-Maliki stressing US departure

U.S. Army Capt. Mike Forbes, left, takes a photo at the site of a car bomb blast in west Baghdad's upscale Mansour neighborhood, Iraq, Thursday, July 10, 2008. Violence in Iraq is at its lowest level in four years, but ask Capt. Mike Forbes, and he will tell you his job as a troop commander in Baghdad has gotten harder, not easier. (AP Photo/Sebastian Abbot)

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's prime minister is pushing the idea that the U.S. departure is in sight in a bid to sell the security deal with Washington to Iran.

To reinforce the message, the Iraqis are asking for changes to the deal that would effectively rule out extending the U.S. military presence beyond 2011.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies are also describing the agreement not as a formula for long-term U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation - the original goal when the talks began earlier this year - but as a way to manage the U.S. withdrawal.

It's unclear whether this will be enough to win over the Iranians and Iraqi critics - or whether the U.S. will go along with the demands submitted by the Iraqi Cabinet this week.

The Iraqis want expanded Iraqi jurisdiction over U.S. troops and elimination of a clause that could allow the soldiers to stay past a tentative Dec. 31, 2011 deadline.

Iran strongly opposes the agreement, fearing it could lead to U.S. troops remaining in a neighboring country indefinitely.

With Iranian sensitivities in mind, the Iraqis also want an explicit ban on the U.S. using Iraqi territory to attack its neighbors - a demand that was reinforced by last Sunday's U.S. raid against a suspected al-Qaida hideout in Syria.

If Washington won't bend, key Iraqi politicians believe the deal will never win parliament's approval. U.S. diplomats are studying the proposals, and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said a response is expected by Wednesday.

But some U.S. officials in Washington have privately expressed doubts about chances to reach an agreement before the U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. mission expires at the end of next month.

Without an agreement or a new U.N. mandate, the U.S. military would have to suspend all security and assistance operations in Iraq.

Privately, many Iraqi lawmakers believe they still need the 145,000 U.S. troops because Iraq's own army and police aren't be ready to replace them. Some U.S. commanders privately doubt they would even be ready by 2012.

But many of the sectarian and ethnically based parties are reluctant to take a stand, fearing a backlash among Iraqis who are anxious to see an end to the U.S. presence.

The biggest Shiite party must also factor in the strong opposition of Shiite-dominated Iran, its patron even before the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime in 2003.

For years the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which controls 30 of the 275 parliament seats, has carefully nurtured close ties not only with Iran but with the United States.

The party was founded in Iran by Iraqi Shiite exiles during Saddam's rule. After the 2003 invasion, the Supreme Council cooperated with the U.S. to solidify Shiite political dominance here.

Al-Maliki's own Shiite party, Dawa, the major Sunni bloc and many Shiite independent legislators have all been waiting for the Supreme Council to take a stand on the agreement before announcing their positions.

In the last three days, al-Maliki and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker have met separately with the head of the Supreme Council, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, presumably to lobby for the deal.

After meeting Thursday with al-Hakim, the prime minister told government television that "we don't call it a security pact but an agreement to withdraw the troops and organize their activities during the period of their presence in Iraq."

Some leading members of the Supreme Council have said privately they believe Iraq needs the agreement to shore up the security gains of the past 18 months.

But they also find themselves in a bind: supporting the agreement could brand them "traitors" and rejecting it would make them look like Iranian puppets.

The Supreme Council faces a strong challenge in southern Iraq by supporters of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who rejects the deal. Council members fear the Sadrists could use support for the deal against them in next year's provincial elections, threatening their main power base.

Council members believe they would fare better if the U.S. accepts the amendments.

"We support the amendments that the Iraqi Cabinet has approved for the proposed security agreement," Shiite cleric and council member Sadralddin al-Qubanji sad Friday.

If the Americans agree to the changes, then the draft "will be referred to the Iraqi parliament to approve it," he said.

Some U.S. officials say there is a chance that some of the Iraqi proposals could be accommodated. But demands for more control over American troops are a "red line" for the Bush administration and Congress.

Failure to win agreement would be a huge embarrassment for President Bush in the waning days of his administration that was largely defined by the war.