President Bush said Wednesday he is confident he can work out a new security pact with Iraq before year's end.
But time is running out and the two sides may be forced to ask for an extension of the U.N. agreement that allows the U.S. military to operate. That would shift crucial decisions to the next U.S. president.
Political opposition to the proposed deal in Iraq has increased discussion in Washington and Baghdad about a U.N. extension. The Iraqi Cabinet this week authorized Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reopen talks on the Status of Forces Agreement, and he has sent proposed changes to Washington.
“We obviously want to be helpful and constructive without undermining basic principles,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office. “And I remain very hopeful and confident that the SOFA will get passed.”
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The current U.N. mandate gives legal authority for U.S. forces to operate only through Dec. 31. Iraq considered the mandate an affront to its sovereignty and sought a replacement agreement that functions more like a treaty between equals. Negotiations began in May; the Bush administration had hoped to complete them by the end of July.
Some in the administration now worry it may be too late to get the parliament to approve the deal before the mandate expires. If the mandate is not extended, American troops would be confined to their barracks and all operations would have to be suspended.
Security “gains… will start to unravel potentially,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Wednesday.
The move to reopen the talks took on heightened significance after a dramatic weekend U.S. raid on Syria staged from inside Iraq.
Iraq now wants the agreement to include a clear ban on U.S. troops using Iraqi territory to attack its neighbors.