The bilateral accord, snagged by political infighting in Iraq, would provide the internationally recognized legal cover for continued U.S. military presence in Iraq when the U.N. Security Council mandate for it expires Dec. 31.
Without an accord or new mandate, all U.S. military operations in Iraq would in theory come to an immediate stop, including thousands of citizen volunteers who guard their communities with U.S. oversight and funding.
"We have to have a legal framework to stay here," U.S. Army Gen. Raymond Odierno said during a visit to Samara, about 120 miles north of Baghdad. "So are there other options for a legal framework? Maybe, but what we are hoping for is for an agreement between two sovereign countries.
"We're working with the government of Iraq on this, and the bottom line is, if we don't have a legal framework, we're going to have to take a look at what happens."
Odierno is the commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq. He assumed the position in September, replacing Gen. David Petraeus.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have been negotiating a Status of Forces Agreement for more than eight months. Sticking points have included provisions for Iraqi legal jurisdiction over U.S. personnel in the country, a date for U.S. withdrawal and control over military operations.
The United States has more than 100 country-specific SOF deals around the world, according to U.S. officials.
Exact details of a draft agreement with Iraq have not been disclosed, but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Congress this month that U.S. troops would have to withdraw from all cities and towns by June 30 and leave the country by the end of 2011 unless other arrangements were made.
News reports have said a draft agreement reached this month, and leaked to the media, includes the following provisions:
-- All U.S. military operations would need the agreement of the Iraqi government and must be coordinated with Iraqi authorities. A joint U.S.-Iraqi committee would be set up for coordination.
-- U.S. military forces would not be allowed to arrest or detain people without an Iraqi court order, and those arrested must be turned over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours.
-- U.S. troops would no longer be allowed to enter and search homes without a warrant in hand from Iraqi authorities, except in combat situations.
-- U.S. troops must end their presence in Iraqi cities and towns by June 30 and leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
-- Before the end of the agreement, Iraq can ask the United States to maintain forces in the country for training and support.
Provisions of the draft agreement apparently have sparked a firestorm within Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated coalition government. Some factions apparently object to the clause allowing the possibility for U.S. troops to remain after 2011.
Maliki reportedly has called for proposed amendments from members of his Cabinet. Any such proposed amendments by the Iraqis would then be subject to renewed negotiations with U.S. officials.
Maliki's 37-member Cabinet of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds would then have to approve the final draft of the measure before it is sent to the country's Parliament.
There are other sources of pressure on the Maliki government as well. Anti-American cleric Moqtada Sadr, believed to be in Iran, has called for total withdrawal of U.S. forces and has warned a new "elite" militia was being formed to fight U.S. troops in a prolonged occupation. Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most respected Shiite leader, has said he would only countenance an SOF deal passed by elected legislators.
Just as important is opposition from Iran, which has supplied weapons to militias fighting the U.S. presence in Iraq.
"The bottom line is the government of Iran has their own issues here," Odierno said. "I think they do not want the government of the United States here in Iraq. They do not want a long-term relationship between Iraq and the United States. And ultimately, I think, that's the issue here."
Odierno, who has been criticized by Iraqi politicians for remarks on Iranian efforts to block a Status of Forces Agreement, last week sent to Iraqi government ministers a detailed outline of the operational consequences resulting from failure to approve a bilateral accord or obtain a new U.N. mandate: U.S. military rebuilding projects that employ thousands of Iraqis would cease, training of Iraqi forces -- including police -- would end, as would all joint military security operations. Key U.S. military support for Iraqi army forces -- such as transport, communications, medical evacuation and air cover -- would be halted.
Iraq, with no air control capability at present, nonetheless would have to take over air traffic control and also assume total responsibility for guarding its borders.
"What they were provided was (the content of some PowerPoint slides) that showed this is the support we give that we might have to pull back," Odierno said. "We provided that to all the leaders. And it was just a fax, a statement of facts of the things we are doing.
"We want to work together. We think the government of Iraq is on the right track. The government of Iraq and the United States want the same things. We want the government of Iraq to be successful," and a bilateral agreement would move that forward.
The capabilities of Iraqi military forces have improved greatly, he said, but they still "need logistics, they need aviation support, they need a little bit of fire (support) … but although they've come a long way, they still need some training with our leaders as well, and partnering is the best way ahead for them.
"I think a bit longer -- a year, 18 months -- more of partnering with these units will make a whole lot of difference for them, and a lot of them will be able to stand on their own."
A way out of the impasse would be for Maliki to ask for another extension of the U.N. mandate for U.S. operations in Iraq. But time is running short, and those on the Security Council opposed to continued U.S. presence here could knock down any request from the Maliki government.
Meanwhile, U.S. forces in Iraq are continuing with their missions, hunting down terrorists in joint operations with Iraqi forces, mentoring security forces and overseeing the rebuilding of schools and infrastructure using Iraqi funds. Officers asked said they have received no orders on what to do come Jan. 1 if there is no SOFA or U.N. mandate.
Odierno said he remains optimistic the accord or other arrangement would be reached before Dec. 31.
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