BAGHDAD — Under intense U.S. pressure, Iraqi leaders announced early Wednesday they had agreed to start negotiations on keeping some American soldiers in the country after the current Dec. 31 deadline for all U.S. troops to have left Iraq.
The decision was announced following more than four hours of closed-door talks led by President Jalal Talabani. Most reporters had rushed home to beat the 1 a.m. curfew still in force.
A U.S. embassy official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the Iraqi talks said that any agreement with Iraq to keep soldiers here would require immunity from criminal prosecution for all U.S. military personnel, an issue that would have to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.
The embassy official said the agreement included implicit acknowledgement of the immunity issue and that any future deal would be presented to the Iraqi parliament.
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Deputy Prime Minister Rosh Nuri Shawis who read a statement announcing the deal to state-run television said attendees at the meeting recognized that Iraqi military forces need more training.
"All those present agreed to authorize the government of Iraq to start negotiations with the American side," he said.
The agreement to begin talks on extending the U.S. troops presence is a crucial first step that could lead to several thousand U.S. troops remaining in Iraq after the Dec. 31 deadline set for their departure under a "status of forces agreement" that Iraq and the United States signed in 2008. How many troops might stay behind in unknown, but U.S. officials have said privately that the number would be fewer than 10,000.
President Barack Obama made withdrawing all U.S. forces from Iraq a campaign pledge but in recent months, U.S. officials have raised a variety of reasons, including threats from Iran, for why both the U.S. and Iraq would benefit from a continued American military presence.
To reach the agreement, the Iraqi leaders apparently agreed to reactivate a powerful new national security council that was to have been headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose political allies won more parliamentary seats in elections in 2010 than did Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's alliance. But Maliki and Allawi have been at loggerheads of Allawi's role in the government.
With Allawi reentering the political fray to provide backing on the issue, Maliki is now believed to have enough support for the agreement to be passed by parliament, even with opposition from the followers of Shhite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose backers are the largest single bloc in Maliki's coalition.
The agreement also calls for Allawi's Iraqiya party to choose a new defense minister while Maliki and his allies would decide on an interior minister. Those key posts have been vacant because of political disagreements since the coalition government was formed in December.
The U.S. embassy official said U.S. training forces could conceivably continue to conduct counter-terrorism operations with Iraqi special forces and provide intelligence help if the Iraqis asked. But he said the specific areas of cooperation to be negotiated has not been determined and there has been no discussion yet of how many American troops might be left.
Although the statement said all attendees had agreed to the statement, it was clear the Sadrists had not. The head of the Sadr bloc walked out of the meeting in protest before the announcement of an agreement was read. The Sadrists consider the U.S. an occupying force and have made clear they will vote against any agreement to keep American forces.
The Sadr bloc has been an essential part of Maliki's coalition government, cobbled together after Maliki's State of Law coalition won two fewer seats than Ayad Allawi's political bloc in elections last year.
"Our stand is clear from the beginning," says Sadr member of parliament Amir al Kinani. "We are opposing the Americans on our soil regardless of some other political blocs that are trying to gain political advantage from this agreement."
Kinani said the Sadrists would vote against the agreement in parliament.
In recent weeks, Maliki's coalition has appeared increasingly shaky, as some of his Shiite partners turned against him to side with Allawi's Iraqiya bloc on some issues. The U.S. embassy official hailed the agreement as offering Allawi a bigger role in the government.
"One reason that we were encouraged by what has happened last night and frankly what has happened recently in the political give-and-take here is that there seem to be broad partnerships in political coalitions emerging that take tough decisions," the embassy official said. "This is very good. Because we don't want to be partner to a dictatorship or to a one-party regime."
The agreement came after intense pressure from U.S. officials, most recently the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, who met Maliki and Talabani Sunday to tell them that time was running out.
"for us a significant part of this is just a physics problem — you get to a point in time where you just can't turn back and all the troops must leave," Mullen told reporters. "That's why it's so important to make the decision absolutely as soon as possible."
(Arraf works for the Christian Science Monitor. McClatchy and the Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad.)
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