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Panetta presses Iraq for decision on U.S. troops

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told Iraq’s leaders Monday that they must decide soon whether to ask for U.S. troops to remain beyond the end of the year. But the U.S. does not intend to broker negotiations among Iraqi politicians that could ultimately lead to agreement for a continuing presence, senior American officials said.

Panetta’s visit stood in sharp contrast to past tours by high-ranking U.S. officials under the George W. Bush administration or even by Vice President Joe Biden in trying to push Iraqi leaders to take action. The subdued trip comes eight months after Biden helped persuade Iraqi leaders to form a government after a lengthy stalemate that followed a too-close-to-call national election.

Yet even now, terms of the deal remain largely unfulfilled, including the formation of a strategic national council headed by Iyad Allawi, a secular finalist for prime minister, as well as the appointment of the interior and defense ministers.

It is this failure that Iraqi officials warn could sabotage any chance for an agreement on U.S. troops staying.

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“It will be much easier if a mutual understanding exists among the blocs about the shape of the [Iraqi] government,” said Deputy Prime Minister Roj Nuri Shawis, an ethnic Kurd.

At this point, it remains unclear whether Allawi and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki can make peace. Without rapprochement, Maliki does not have the political protection to win parliamentary approval for a security agreement that would allow a small number of American troops to remain in Iraq. Currently, Maliki relies on the political support of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to stay in office, and Sadr wants all U.S. troops out at the end of the year.

Members of Allawi’s Iraqiya list, meanwhile, wonder why they should support an extended American military presence, when the deal to form a government that the U.S. helped broker in November has not been realized. They see Maliki serving as acting interior and defense minister and feel the U.S. government didn’t live up to its commitments.

“If the Americans stay and do not take a position on anything, their presence will be useless,” said Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlak of Iraqiya. “They must change their policy.”

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In separate meetings with Maliki and President Jalal Talabani, Panetta said, “We need to know as soon as possible” if American forces will be asked to remain, and that “message was clearly understood,” according to Douglas B. Wilson, assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs.

The Obama administration, at least in public, has refused to become directly involved in urging Iraq to ask for some of the 46,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to remain after December, even though senior American military officers have made it clear they would probably look favorably on such a request.

But as the withdrawal deadline set during the Bush administration approaches, American officials are warning that as the planned pullout of personnel and equipment gains momentum, a point will be reached where it will be impractical to halt.

“As you get deeper and deeper into the fall, it gets harder and harder” to halt the pullout, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told reporters Monday. “When you get into the October, November time frame, you are really taking things apart that are really difficult to put back together.”

Iraqi political leaders met during the weekend under Talabani’s sponsorship to try to break their deadlock and to debate whether the Americans should stay. They decided to adjourn for two weeks, while a smaller committee that had previously sought to resolve the deadlock was again activated.

In earlier negotiations, the Kurds had proposed that Maliki, Allawi and Iraqi Kurdistan’s president, Massoud Barzani, meet to name the security ministers. If Maliki and Allawi could not meet, the Kurds said, the two should nominate representatives to go in their stead. Allawi’s Iraqiya list accepted, but Maliki’s coalition never responded.

Similarly, the Kurds proposed a compromise so Allawi could head the stalled National Council for Higher Policies. Allawi had insisted he be named head of the council in parliament, but Maliki opposed this, so the Kurds suggested that the council vote on Allawi and then have parliament ratify the decision. Iraqiya accepted the idea, but Maliki’s list again declined to give an answer.

In the past, the Americans probably would have used a high-profile visit to nudge the sides forward to a resolution of their political crisis. But Panetta emphasized to Maliki that “there’s not going to be an endless progression” of U.S. officials coming to Baghdad in the near future to push for a deal, defense spokesman Wilson said.

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At the same time, the Obama administration has quietly enlisted the help of several former Bush administration aides who were involved in negotiating the original agreement calling for a complete U.S. pullout at the end of 2011 in order to hold further talks with Iraqi officials.

Some wonder whether the Americans even have much to offer the Iraqis that could induce them to settle their own political feuds and then ask the U.S. to stay.

“In 2008, it was possible to isolate the U.S. relationship from Iraq’s internal power relations. This time, it’s a much more complicated game,” said a Western observer, who has lived in Iraq for several years and requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “What leverage does America have? What is it that the United States can deliver now that Iraqis want?”

david.cloud@latimes.com

ned.parker@latimes.com


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