The Bush administration has adopted a much looser interpretation of several key provisions of the pending U.S.-Iraq security agreement than the Iraqi government has, U.S. officials said Tuesday — just hours before the Iraqi parliament was to hold its historic vote.
These provisions include a ban on the launch of attacks on other countries from Iraq, a requirement to notify the Iraqis in advance of U.S. military operations, and the question of Iraqi legal jurisdiction over American troops and military contractors.
U.S. officials said the administration has withheld the official English translation of the agreement in an effort to suppress a public dispute with the Iraqis until after the Iraqi parliament votes.
The Iraqi government Tuesday achieved a breakthrough on the pact, which calls for American troops to leave Iraq by 2012, by gaining conditional support from Tawafuq, a bloc of Sunni Muslim parties. Tawafuq's condition was that the government would hold a nationwide referendum on it next year.
The Sunnis also want the U.S. to refrain from implementing wording that they consider vague, though lawmakers declined to say which passages concerned them.
In some areas, three officials told McClatchy Newspapers, the U.S. and Iraq have agreed on the words but have different interpretations of what they mean. All three declined to speak on the record because the administration, which had planned to release the official English-language text last week, has instead designated it "sensitive but unclassified."
The White House National Security Council said it had held up the translation's release until the Iraqi parliament votes. The vote was scheduled today.
A U.S. official, however, said the aim was also to head off any debate in the U.S. media. The administration fears that any discussion "may inadvertently throw this thing off the rails," said the official, who couldn't be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters.
McClatchy on Tuesday obtained an official English-language copy of the agreement. U.S. officials have told McClatchy that the Bush administration was eager to complete the deal before it leaves office in January and acquiesced to many Iraqi demands.
Two U.S. officials, however, said that if it becomes clear that the Bush administration has different interpretations of some key provisions than Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government does, Iraqi lawmakers might balk at approving the pact or delay a vote while seeking clarification. The current United Nations mandate governing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq expires on Dec. 31.
Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a center-left research group in Washington, said there are "these areas that are not as clear-cut as the Iraqis would like to think." He said the two governments "have agreed to punt together on a number of important issues."
Among the areas of dispute:
• A provision that bars the U.S. from launching military operations into neighboring countries from Iraqi territory. Administration officials argue they could circumvent that provision in some cases, such as pursuing groups that launch strikes on U.S. targets from Syria or Iran, by citing another provision that allows each party to retain the right of self-defense. One official expressed concern that "if Iran gets wind that we think there's a loophole there," Iran might renew its opposition to the agreement.
• A provision that appears to require the U.S. to notify Iraqi officials in advance of any planned military operations and to seek Iraqi approval for them, which some U.S. military officials find especially troubling, although Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the U.S. Central Command, and Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, all have endorsed it.
"Telling the Iraqis in advance would be an invitation to an ambush," said one U.S. official, who said the Iraqi government and security forces are "thoroughly penetrated by the insurgents, the Iranians, the Sadrists [followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr] and ordinary folks who just sell scraps of intelligence."
The administration has sought to assuage such concerns by arguing that the pact doesn't require the U.S. to give the Iraqis detailed information about planned operations, two officials said. For example, they said, the administration interprets the agreement to mean, for instance, that U.S. commanders would merely need to inform their Iraqi counterparts that they planned to launch counterterrorism operations somewhere in an Iraqi city or province sometime in January.
• Iraqi legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops or military contractors who kill Iraqis on operations. The agreement calls for Iraq to prosecute U.S. troops according to court procedures that have yet to be worked out. Those negotiations, administration officials have argued, could take three years, by which time the U.S. would have withdrawn from Iraq under the terms of the agreement. In the interim, U.S. troops would remain under the jurisdiction of America's Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Such differing interpretations could present problems. Sunni lawmaker Omar Abdul Sattar said Tuesday that Tawafuq, the Sunni alliance, wants a pledge that the Americans will not implement articles in the security agreement that Tawafuq considers vague.
The Sunni lawmakers also are insisting that unless the agreement is submitted to a national referendum next year, they would reject the deal, denying it the appearance of national unity that's considered essential for it to succeed.
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