U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says there is not much room for further negotiations with Iraq on the future of U.S. forces in the country, and if agreement is not reached by the end of the year there could be what he called "pretty dramatic" consequences. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
Secretary Gates told newswire service reporters he does not want to "slam the door shut" on further changes to a draft agreement on the status of U.S. forces in Iraq. But, he said, the door is "pretty far closed" after months of negotiations. He warned that if there is no agreement, U.S. troops would have to, in his words "stop doing anything" when the United Nations authorization expires at the end of the year. U.S. troops still provide much of the security for the Iraqi people.
Asked whether renewing the U.N. mandate might be an option, Secretary Gates said a renewal may be difficult to obtain.
Earlier Tuesday in Baghdad, Iraq's cabinet decided to ask for changes in the draft negotiators finalized last week, but did not publicly say exactly what changes it wants. A spokesman said they are needed to win what he called "national acceptance" of the continued presence of U.S. forces.
A key issue in dispute reportedly is whether U.S. troops will have immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. The draft is reported to allow for such prosecutions, but only in extreme cases. Negotiators also spent a lot of time on the wording associated with withdrawal dates listed in the draft, which Pentagon Spokesman Bryan Whitman says are targets that could change, depending on conditions.
"We share a common goal with the Iraqis, and that is to turn over security operations to them," said Bryan Whitman. "But we also recognize that that is something that is predicated on any number of things, any number of factors, and that's why we've always said that we believe the best way to hand over the responsibilities is to do it when Iraqi forces are ready to do it."
Whitman says U.S. officials believe the draft enables American troops to continue to help secure Iraq and train its new security forces, while also providing legal protections for U.S. troops. Officials also note that the United States has dozens of such agreements with countries around the world, although most of them are not active war zones. Whitman says the draft would not limit the options of the next U.S. president, who will take office in January.
Any agreement would have to be approved by Iraq's cabinet and parliament. But American officials say the U.S. Congress will not have to vote on the accord.