BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki raised the possibility that his country won't sign a status of forces agreement with the United States and will ask U.S. troops to go home when their U.N. mandate to be in Iraq expires at the end of the year.
Maliki made the comment after weeks of complaints from Shiite Muslim lawmakers that U.S. proposals that would govern a continued troop presence in Iraq would infringe on Iraq's sovereignty.
"Iraq has another option that it may use," Maliki said during a visit to Amman, Jordan. "The Iraqi government, if it wants, has the right to demand that the U.N. terminate the presence of international forces on Iraqi sovereign soil."
Earlier, Maliki acknowledged that talks with the U.S. on a status of forces agreement "reached an impasse" after the American negotiators presented a draft that would have given the U.S. access to 58 military bases, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution for both U.S. soldiers and private contractors.
The Iraqis rejected those demands, and U.S. diplomats have submitted a second draft, which Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told McClatchy included several major concessions. Among those would be allowing Iraq to prosecute private contractors for violations of Iraqi law and requiring U.S. forces to turn over to Iraqi authorities Iraqis that the Americans detain.
Salih stressed that the Iraqi government wants to reach an agreement with the United States. But he said the Iraqi government wouldn't be pressured into accepting terms that compromised Iraq's rights as a sovereign state.
"Our American allies need to understand and realize that this agreement must be respectful of Iraqi sovereignty," Salih said. "We need them here for a while longer, and they know they have to remain here for a while."
American negotiators have hoped the talks would be finished by the end of July, but Maliki's latest remarks — as well as those by influential members of parliament — make that deadline seem unrealistic.
"When we got to demands made by the American side we found that they greatly infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq and this is something we can ever accept," Maliki said. "We reached a clear disagreement. But I can assure you that all Iraqis would reject an agreement that violates Iraqi sovereignty in any way."
Maliki indicated that officials on both sides were looking for an agreement.
"Negotiations will continue," Maliki said, "by adding new ideas from Plans A, then B, then C, until we reach the decision that ensures the sovereignty of Iraq."
In Baghdad, U.S. Embassy spokesman Armand Cucciniello said Maliki "was referring to the first draft" of the agreement and that negotiations would continue "based on the fundamental principle of Iraqi sovereignty. We are looking forward to a successful conclusion of the negotiations."
Some Iraqi officials, however, said they're concerned that Maliki has become overconfident of his military's ability to defend his government and might believe Iraqi forces alone can maintain security here without the help of U.S. troops.
Maliki's confidence in the security forces' abilities are fed, these officials say by the Iraqi security forces' recent successes in Basra, Mosul and Baghdad's Sadr City area, where Iraqi troops have disarmed rival Sunni and Shiite forces and brought relative calm to once troubled areas.
But many here belive that U.S. backing was critical to those successes.
"I don't know how much of this is posturing in the negotiations," said one senior government official, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to be seen as undercutting Maliki’s position. "If tomorrow the Americans decide to leave, I want to caution against overconfidence. It’s still very precarious and we don't have the capabilities yet to fend for ourselves."
Maliki also said that any agreement for a continued U.S. presence here would be voted on by Iraq's parliament, a statement that also makes it unlikely that an agreement will be reached without considerable give by the Americans.
The status of forces agreement was the backdrop as well for an announcement by rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr that he had created a special branch of his militia that would be allowed to carry weapons and attack American troops.
The remainder of his 60,000-strong Mahdi Army militia is expected to lay down its weapons. The announcement comes two months before a ceasefire that has been in effect for 10 months ends.
Sadr has been struggling for the past year to remain at the head of a militant anti-American movement and at the same time remain part of Iraq's political process. In August he ordered his followers to observe a ceasefire that has largely held despite complaints from his followers that they are being attacked and arrested by government-allied forces.
Mahdi Army militiamen were the principal targets of Maliki's recent military offensives in Basra and Sadr City and another offensive reportedly is being prepared for Amara, a Sadr stronghold in southern Iraq.
The creation of a separate wing authorized to attack U.S. forces may be intended to streamline the Mahdi Army and allow Sadr to maintain the ability to undertake military actions even as he accedes to government demands that most of his followers disarm.
Militants authorized to carry weapons "will direct them toward the occupier only. In fact, all other attacks will be prohibited," Sadr's statement said.
The rest of his followers would resist "Western ideology" through "cultural, religious and ideological means."
A top aide, Salah al Obaidi, said the statement was a rejection of any long-term presence by U.S. troops in Iraq by creating a special force to fight the Americans.
"We know that a number of American soldiers will pull outside of Iraq and they will concentrate their presence in certain bases and so we need to change the way we work," Obaidi said. "It is a message to the people negotiating the agreement that as long as there are American forces inside Iraq, we cannot stray from what we have adopted in our principles — to oppose the American presence in Iraq."