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Clock ticking on need for U.S. forces, top Iraqis say

Times Staff Writer

Officials in Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s ruling coalition are questioning whether Iraq needs a U.S. military presence even as the two countries press forward with high-pressure negotiations to determine how long American forces will remain.

Some officials in Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party and his larger Shiite United Iraqi Alliance bloc, which has cooperated with the U.S., have spoken in favor of imposing severe restrictions on U.S. forces after the United Nations mandate authorizing their presence expires at the end of the year.

Maliki and President Bush last year outlined goals for an agreement covering military, trade and cultural relations. They pledged to return Iraq to full sovereignty and said the agreement was expected to be finalized by July 31.

According to Iraqis, Americans supported a draft of the agreement that called for allowing U.S. forces to detain Iraqis and conduct missions without the government’s permission. They have also said the Americans required up to 58 permanent bases, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity for troops and contractors.

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American officials have refused to disclose their negotiating stance and have accused their critics of deliberately distorting U.S. positions.

David Satterfield, the State Department’s senior advisor on Iraq, said Tuesday that the U.S. remained committed to an agreement by late July. He denied that the U.S. was pushing demands that infringed upon Iraq’s independence.

“We want to see Iraqi sovereignty strengthened, not weakened,” he said.

U.S. forces are scaling back from a massive troop buildup last year known as “the surge,” which helped put the brakes on Iraq’s civil war. U.S. troop levels are expected to drop to an estimated 140,000 by July as the Americans evaluate the effect of their military reductions on Iraq’s security. It remains to be seen whether the fragile peace between the country’s Shiite majority and onetime Sunni elite will hold if the Americans quickly leave the country.

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United Iraqi Alliance lawmaker Sami Askari, who is considered a member of Maliki’s inner circle, said the changes in opinions in many cases are gradual.

“There is the camp who still believe that we need the Americans to stay and the other camp that says we don’t need them anymore,” Askari said. “You can’t draw a line, even within the Dawa Party, even within” the alliance, he said.

Shiite officials like Askari have warned there is no way any Iraqi politician could back the current U.S. security agreement proposals.

“If I’m from the group that believes in the need for the Americans to stay, and then they face me with such a draft, then I’ll say, look, I’d rather go with the others,” Askari said.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, has defended the agreement. “The recent statements you’ve heard, the recent politicking you heard by different groups has really been very unhelpful,” he said. “There has been no agreement yet.

“Secondly, most of the statements are coming from people who are unaware or not involved in the heart of this negotiating procedure. It has really been used for political brinksmanship,” Zebari said.

Senior Iraqi politicians and Western officials confirmed the friction and debate within the alliance about an agreement.

“Of course there are some people who are against it, no doubt,” said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, who is a leading negotiator on the Iraqi side. Salih vowed that the Kurds, Maliki and the country’s presidency council would get approval for a bilateral agreement despite any opposition within the alliance.

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Others warned that some Dawa members were seeking to sabotage a long-term deal.

“There is a lot of misrepresentation. It is deliberate. Some people don’t want this on principle. Some people may have ideological problems with this. Now they are showing their true colors,” said a senior Iraqi official who did not wish to be identified because it could endanger his position.

He warned that even Maliki’s backing was not a given. The prime minister is faced with pressure within his party. In the past, officials have described Maliki as flip-flopping on government decisions.

The official described Dawa members as having become overconfident after successful military campaigns this spring in the southern port of Basra, Baghdad’s Sadr City and Mosul that relied heavily on U.S. air support to defeat Sunni and Shiite armed groups.

“It has given this false image we are strong enough and we can stand on our own feet, that there is no need for any foreign presence,” the official said.

A Western official who works closely with the Iraqi government said the wave of offensives had encouraged Maliki’s advisors to dismiss U.S. demands as not worth the price.

“When faced with the question, ‘Do we need the Americans?’ they are inclined to say, ‘No, what do we need them for? We can do just fine,’ ” said the official, who was not authorized to speak to reporters.

Maliki’s advisors are now asking aloud whether the American presence creates more trouble for Iraq with its Arab and Iranian neighbors or whether it safeguards the country’s sovereignty, the Western official explained.

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During Maliki’s trip this week to Iran, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Iraq against such a deal with the Americans. Tehran’s protests have been echoed in Lebanon by the armed Shiite political movement Hezbollah and by Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.

Within the two biggest parties in the alliance, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Dawa, there are those who also have long viewed America with mistrust.

“Some never supported a sustained U.S. presence from the Coalition Provisional Authority onwards. Some were willing to accept a limited U.S. presence that brought them to power and then defeated Sunni forces, but oppose lasting ties with a non-Islamic and non- Arab state,” said Iraq expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Senior members of the alliance say U.S. forces should be called into action only by the Iraqi government. They argue Iraqi forces should be in charge of cities next year and the American troops ought to wait on bases to serve in a backup role.

“If the Americans insist that they have their own mission in Iraq, then an agreement will be difficult to reach,” Askari said.

If there is a failure to compromise, Iraq has two options: It can ask for a six-month or yearlong extension of the U.N. mandate, which will allow Iraq time to build up its army and buy weapons, Askari said. The other choice is to go it alone.

Officials like Askari think Iraq could gamble on parting with the Americans and survive.

“For sure we need them [the Americans], but not at any price,” Askari said. “I feel we are more secure now. There isn’t any chance that civil war will happen. . . . If we feel we have enough power, enough forces, to defend our country, there is no need for friendly troops."--

ned.parker@latimes.com

Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed, Saif Rasheed and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.


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