WASHINGTON — With time running out for the conclusion of an agreement governing American forces in Iraq, negotiators have begun examining alternatives that would allow U.S. troops to stay beyond the Dec. 31 deadline, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
Neither side finds the options attractive. One possibility is an extension of the United Nations mandate that expires at the end of the year. That would require a Security Council vote that both governments believe could be complicated by Russia or others opposed to the U.S.-led war.
Negotiators have been stuck for months on the question of legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops and immunity for possible crimes. But even if the sides reach a deal soon, it is not clear that a formal status-of-forces agreement could be approved by the end of the year. Maliki has pledged to submit an accord to Iraq's divided Parliament before he signs it.
If the Parliament refuses, Maliki would have "no choice" but to request a U.N. extension "because the American forces will lose their legal cover on Dec. 31," he told the Times of London. "If that happens, according to international law, Iraqi law and American law, the U.S. forces will be confined to their bases and have to withdraw from Iraq," Maliki said.
U.S. officials do not dispute that the absence of an agreement would probably require an immediate end to combat operations and, at a minimum, confinement to bases on Jan. 1.
"I am actually reasonably optimistic we will come to closure on this in a very near future," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters Friday. On Sept. 8, Gates told Congress he expected an agreement "within the next few weeks."
"But I had hoped that some weeks ago," Gates added.