Page last updated at 10:57 GMT, Friday, 17 October 2008 11:57 UK

Dissent in Iraq at accord with US

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

US troops on patrol close to Baquba, Iraq
Many Iraqis are bitterly opposed to any continuing US presence

Senior Iraqi officials involved in months of detailed wrangling with the Americans over their Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) believe the draft accord now being circulated is the best deal they can get.

But that will not be enough to win automatic support for the agreement from all of Iraq's fractious groups, some of which are bitterly opposed to any continuing US presence, irrespective of the agreement's details.

Rejection of any agreement with the Americans is spearheaded by the group led by the militant Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has strong grassroots support and also 30 seats in parliament.

The Sadrists have called for a mass demonstration in Baghdad on Saturday to denounce the accord.

At least one other big Shia faction is believed to have reservations about the agreement, and some Sunnis have also voiced dissent.

Iran, which has considerable influence with some Shia groups in particular, is openly opposed to the agreement.

The commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, even accused Iran of smuggling money across the border to bribe Iraqi MPs to vote against the agreement - though he admitted he had no concrete evidence.

So the accord's formal endorsement by the Iraqi political bodies is by no means a foregone conclusion. It could be a very bumpy road.

Compromise on both sides

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is said to want at least a two-thirds majority of parliament in support of the agreement so that he can fend off its critics.

The text is ready, and everybody has stretched their positions to the limit - there can be no more negotiations
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari

A margin of that size maybe hard to muster.

Hence the extreme caution in both Washington and Baghdad about hailing the draft accord as a done deal, although the scope for further negotiations seems to be slight.

"All the outstanding issues have been resolved, and what's needed now is tough decisions - do we want it or not?" Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the BBC.

"The text is ready, and everybody has stretched their positions to the limit - there can be no more negotiations."

The Americans began the negotiations early this year, resisting any attempt to include timetables or target dates for withdrawal, or any suggestion of Iraqi jurisdiction over US troops.

According to reports of the circulating draft, which has not been officially published, there was compromise on both issues.

The Americans agreed to set target dates of June 2009 for their combat troops to be out of Iraqi cities, and the end of 2011 for them to leave the country altogether.

But their concern for a conditions-based approach was met by a provision that troops can stay on if the Iraqi government requests them to.

In theory, the Iraqis also won a concession whereby US troops or contractors who commit major crimes while off duty and outside bases, would be subject to Iraqi courts.

That issue was regarded by the Iraqis as one of sovereignty. In practice, US troops, even if outside their bases, would probably never be regarded by the Americans as being off-duty.

Bitter haggling

The first, and probably most difficult, hurdle the agreement has to pass is scrutiny by Iraq's Political Council for National Security.

The council brings together all the country's top political figures, from the presidency, the government and also from parliament, including the heads of its major blocs.

If the package wins approval from the council, where all major factions are represented, that would imply a relatively smooth transition later through government and parliament.

The process was to start on Friday and there was no indication as to how long it might take.

Many pieces of important national legislation have been held up for months by bitter haggling between the parliamentary factions.

The SOFA agreement, if it sees the light of day, should be in place by the end of the year, when the UN mandate covering the presence of all coalition forces expires.

If the accord is not adopted by then, both sides will have no choice but to return to the UN and ask for an extension of the mandate - a step that all are reluctant to take.

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