White House pushing to keep troops in Iraq

The Bush administration has launched a top-level lobbying campaign to persuade U.S. lawmakers and Iraqi politicians to support a security agreement governing the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Although congressional approval is not required, U.S. lawmakers' support is considered crucial for an agreement to go forward. In Iraq, where the deal must pass through several complex layers of approval, the going is considered even tougher.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, are among those reaching out to key members of the House and Senate. Rice also is pressing senior Iraqi leaders to accept the deal.

The agreement includes a timeline for U.S. withdrawal by 2012 and a crucial but unpopular compromise that gives Iraq limited ability to try U.S. contractors or soldiers for major crimes committed off-duty and off-base, officials said Thursday.

The campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain, both on Senate committees that deal with the issue, have been briefed on the draft.

Rice on Wednesday called senior Iraqi leaders, pressing them to accept the deal that contains elements that many in Baghdad see as a violation of their country's sovereignty, officials said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice had spoken to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite and a top member of the Supreme Council. Abdul-Mahdi also met on Thursday with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, officials said.

U.S. officials said Rice and Crocker told the Iraqis that the agreement is critical for future U.S.-Iraq relations and that it is the final offer the administration is willing to make. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private diplomatic conversations.

The administration's greatest concern for the deal's future is not the U.S. Congress but Iraq's fractured internal political system. There is some pessimism in Washington that the agreement will survive the Iraqi approval process. The administration had hoped to conclude the agreement by the end of July, to leave plenty of time to sell it before the current U.N. mandate for the U.S.-led international force in Iraq expires on Dec. 31. Now it has less than three months to go before that legal cover for U.S. forces disappears.

The U.N. mandate could be extended, but that could be a difficult process, and is a route neither the Iraqis nor the U.S. relish pursuing.

The worst-case scenario is that U.S. troops in Iraq would have to be confined to their barracks.