U.S. IN FIRMER COMMITMENT TO IRAQ PULLOUT DATE
By Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers
New York Times
October 17, 2008
WASHINGTON -- A sweeping accord between Iraq and the United States would set the end of 2011 as a concrete date for American withdrawal from Iraq, based on the performance and increasing capacity of the Iraqi security forces, according to a draft of the agreement.
The accord, which the Bush administration has been detailing in a series of briefings for lawmakers and their staffs, reflects several concessions to the Iraqi government. It lists specific dates for American forces to first move out of cities and then to leave Iraq, instead of the vague “aspirational” timelines for reductions of American forces that had been pressed by the Bush administration.
But while giving specific dates, the draft does state that these “date goals” could be changed by mutual agreement, and might be accelerated or delayed depending on the ability of the Iraqis to take over the security mission and on “the conditions.”
In a significant breakthrough after months of halting negotiations, the agreement would make private American security companies and other contractors subject to Iraqi justice in criminal cases.
By contrast, American military personnel would be guaranteed immunity from Iraqi law, except in cases of serious or premeditated felonies committed outside their official duties. The United States had pressed for full immunity from Iraqi law for all American troops, while the Iraqis had demanded legal jurisdiction on their territory.
The status of forces agreement has been the subject of intense, complicated negotiations for months, and the Bush administration wants it to be the seal on its war effort in Iraq, providing a basis for a long-term, stable relationship with the new government in Baghdad. The United Nations Security Council resolution that authorizes the American-led mission in Iraq expires Dec. 31.
The administration’s negotiators appear to have bowed to Iraqi political sensitivities in ways that would have been unimaginable only months ago -- so much so that some members of Congress immediately raised questions about whether President Bush had gone too far.
“It’s critical that our dedicated men and women in uniform serving in Iraq have full legal protections and are not subject to criminal prosecution in an Iraqi judicial system that does not meet due process standards,” said Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I intend to reserve judgment as to whether the proposed agreement includes safeguards adequate to meet this standard until I have an opportunity for a more complete review.”
The Iraqi leadership has been torn between demands from the United States as the price of continued operations essential to stability, and resentment felt across the population about the large and continued American presence on sovereign Iraqi soil.
Administration officials cautioned that while negotiators had finished their work, the draft accord still might be subject to changes as it moved through a ponderous process of final ratification by the Iraqis.
Yet in a clear sign that the Bush administration believes that an agreement is all but completed, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have briefed Congressional leaders on the deal. Congressional staff members were called to the West Wing of the White House on Friday morning for a video teleconference from Baghdad that included Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Iraq; Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of United States and allied forces in Iraq; David M. Satterfield from the State Department; and Brett H. McGurk of the National Security Council.
During a Pentagon news conference on Friday, Mr. Gates said “there is no reason to be concerned” by the agreement’s definition of legal guarantees for American troops. He said he and the senior military leadership “are all satisfied that our men and women in uniform serving in Iraq are well protected.”
According to drafts of the agreement, United States forces would first withdraw from Iraqi cities and villages and move to bases no later than June 30, 2009, and those troop movements could occur even sooner should “Iraqi security forces assume responsibility for security in them.”
The text of the agreement states emphatically that “United States forces shall withdraw from Iraqi territory no later than Dec. 31, 2011,” although both nations agreed that some American troops could remain after that date by mutual agreement.
A copy of the draft agreement was provided by an American official, and its contents were confirmed by other senior officials who also had copies of the text. All agreed to discuss the matter on the condition of anonymity before the announcement of a final agreement.
The accord reads like traditional status of forces agreements that set the rules for the American military on foreign soil, and is similar to many negotiated by the executive branch: it carries no language that pledges a long-term commitment by the United States to the defense of Iraq. Such language might rise to the level of a mutual security treaty and require Senate approval, according to some Congressional leaders. A separate security framework has already been the subject of negotiations.
Senior administration officials said that American negotiators bowed to Iraqi anger over civilian deaths in shootings by private security contractors, and agreed to language that states, “Iraq shall have the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over United States contractors and United States contractor employees.”
Any American military personnel, including Defense Department civilian personnel, who are arrested or detained by the Iraqis would be handed over to American authorities, even in cases where Iraq asserts jurisdiction for premeditated felonies.
But the United States would pledge to make those accused personnel available to the Iraqi authorities for investigation and trial, similar to tenets of status of forces agreements the Pentagon has with Japan and South Korea. The primitive level of the Iraqi justice system has worried some in Congress.
As months of negotiations neared completion over recent days, the language defining legal jurisdiction over American military personnel was devised to reassure Iraqis that they might claim the right to prosecute those who commit “grave, premeditated felonies” outside what is termed official “duty status.”
But it is left to the American military to “certify whether an alleged offense arose during duty status,” according to the text. Disputes between Iraqis and Americans over duty status would be decided by a joint committee on jurisdiction.