US-Iraq Deal Still Facing Hurdles

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Jim Watson / AFP / Getty

U.S. President George W. Bush, right, holds a bilateral meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, center

As President Bush prepares to send his top negotiators back to Iraq this week, talk of a final deal to guarantee the future of the U.S. mission there is building. After an August standstill, during which "everybody went back to their corners to reflect and towel off," as one U.S. official familiar with the talks put it, Ambassador David Satterfield and Brett McGurk are heading back to Baghdad with a response to the latest proposal from Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised Sept. 1 to deliver an agreement for ratification by his parliament as early as Thursday. But State Department sources tell TIME they don't expect the Iraqis to immediately accept Washington's latest proposals. And even if a deal were speedily concluded, it would face serious opposition from Shi'ite factions in the Iraqi parliament, which must pass it by a two-thirds majority. "There are all these [supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr and former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari], each of whom is sensing opportunity to score political points," says the U.S. official familiar with the talks.

In his yearlong search for a security deal with the Iraqis, Bush has faced challenges at home and abroad. The Iraqis are demanding a timeline for U.S. withdrawal, some control over how U.S. troops are used while they're still in Iraq, an end to immunity for contractors, and authority over the arrest of their citizens. But there are limits on how much control the Pentagon is willing to cede over military operations in Iraq, while Congress insists that its own constitutional powers not be negotiated away in an agreement. So far, the Administration has refused to release the text of its draft deal, even to Congress, and has refused to comment on parts of it that have leaked to media. Privately, Administration sources say a full draft leaked to the Arab press last month is outdated, although they decline to discuss specifics.

Al-Maliki recently replaced his negotiating team with a group of political aides, mindful of the need to cut a deal acceptable to parliament. "If this deal is going to work, Maliki has got to get all the political factions onboard," says the U.S. official familiar with the talks. But Congressman William Delahunt, who has spoken for House Democrats on the issue, believes it's increasingly unlikely the Iraqi parliament will ratify any deal. "My assessment is that it is becoming more and more remote," he says.

The deal could face a final hurdle if Democrats in Congress decide it needs to be ratified by Congress, but there is disagreement among them on how hard to push the issue in an election year. Delahunt and House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Howard Berman have disagreed over how far to inject Congress into the process, says one Democratic leadership aide.

But tackling the issue in the U.S. Congress would be a welcome diversion for an Administration facing tough political reality on the ground in Baghdad. American diplomats are already talking about alternate scenarios in the event that a deal can't be reached by the Dec. 31 expiration of the U.N. mandate. These include going back to the Security Council for an extension on that mandate or signing a temporary Memorandum of Understanding with Baghdad to facilitate a short-term extension. The Iraqis have said they will not accept a new U.N. mandate and insist on a bilateral agreement of the type used in other countries where U.S. troops operate.

(View a brief history of the Iraq war here.)