American troops could face trial before Iraqi courts for major crimes committed off base and when not on missions, under a draft security pact hammered out in months of tortuous negotiations, Iraqi officials familiar with the accord said Wednesday.
The draft also calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities by the end of June and withdraw from the country entirely by Dec. 31, 2011, unless the Baghdad government asks some of them to stay for training or security support, the officials said.
It would also give the Iraqis a greater role in U.S. military operations and full control of the Green Zone, the 3 1/2-square mile area of central Baghdad that includes the U.S. Embassy and major Iraqi government offices.
One senior Iraqi official said Baghdad may demand even more concessions before the draft is submitted to parliament for a final decision. The two sides are working against a deadline of year's end when the U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S.-led mission expires.
The Iraqi officials, familiar with details of the draft, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.
In Washington, the State Department confirmed that a draft had been finalized but refused to discuss any details.
"There is a text that people are looking at," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters. "Nothing is done until everything is done. Everything isn't done. The Iraqis are still talking among themselves. We are still talking to the Iraqis."
Pressing for concessions
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki briefed the country's president and two vice presidents about the draft late Tuesday and will show the proposed agreement to party leaders by the end of the week. His goal is to gauge political support before referring the draft to parliament, aides said.
Another aide said the Iraqis would press for more concessions if the parties rally behind the government. He would not elaborate. But other al-Maliki aides had said U.S. officials told the prime minister privately that other parties were ready to sign the deal and that he alone was holding out.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to discuss strategy.
During months of negotiations, which began early this year, the most difficult issue proved to be the question of who would try American soldiers and Pentagon contractors for offenses such as the killing of Iraqi civilians.
U.S. negotiators demanded exclusive jurisdiction over all soldiers and contractors, presumably to protect them from politically motivated charges. But Iraq insisted on a role to convince the public that Iraqis — and not Americans — are in charge of their country.
Under the compromise, the U.S. would have the primary right to try troops and Pentagon contractors for alleged offenses committed on American bases or during military operations, the officials said.
Such language would presumably shield troops from prosecution for accidentally killing civilians caught in the crossfire during authorized combat operations.
But Iraq would have first crack at trying U.S. military personnel and contractors for major, premeditated crimes allegedly committed outside American bases and when they are not on an authorized mission, the officials said.
Most of the estimated 147,000 U.S. troops rarely leave their bases except on authorized missions, so it is unclear whether the change would send a significant number of Americans before Iraqi judges.
However, examples of cases that could fall under Iraqi jurisdiction might include the 2006 rape-slaying of a 14-year-old girl and the killing of her family by American soldiers in Mahmoudiya south of Baghdad.
Four U.S. troops pleaded guilty or were convicted in military courts. A former soldier, Steven Dale Green, is expected to stand trial in the United States in April. He could face the death penalty.
A military official in Washington said top Pentagon leaders were not entirely happy with the legal immunity compromise. Officials have said repeatedly, however, that the administration "can live with" the proposed deal.
Other provisions of the draft would give Iraqis a far greater role in U.S. military operations than at any time during the nearly six-year war.
American troops would no longer be allowed to detain suspects or search homes without Iraqi legal authorization except in cases of active combat, the officials said. Anyone detained by the Americans must be handed over to the Iraqis within 24 hours.
All detainees currently held by the U.S. must be released or transferred to Iraqi control, the officials said, although the timetable for the moves was subject to a joint review.
A joint U.S.-Iraqi committee will be established to coordinate American military operations, which must be carried out in accordance with Iraqi law and customs, the officials said.
Al-Maliki is hoping for two-thirds approval in the 275-member parliament to ensure he can fend off political challenges in provincial and national elections and resist pressure from neighboring Iran.
A U.S. military spokesman, Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, alleged Wednesday that Iranian agents were trying to bribe Iraqi politicians to oppose the deal, although he said there was no evidence any Iraqi lawmakers had accepted the offer.
Al-Maliki can count on support from the main Kurdish parties but the positions of major Sunni and Shiite blocs is unclear, the aides added.
Anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's followers, who control 30 parliament seats, oppose the agreement. Sunni and other Shiite blocs appear split.
Bush administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other top Bush aides will soon begin briefing key members of Congress on the draft.
They said the draft may draw objections from U.S. lawmakers, whose support is not legally required but is considered essential to the eventual success of any deal, according to the officials.
However, the American negotiating teams have decided they cannot improve on the proposal and have sent it to higher-ups for a political decision as time runs out on both the Bush administration and the U.N. mandate.
Without a ratified agreement soon, the officials said Tuesday that the two sides would have to begin look more seriously at other options. Those include extending the U.N. authority, a move fraught with complications.