Senior Iraqi politicians have warned that a crucial deal between Baghdad and Washington governing the presence of American troops in the country is doomed to failure after eight months of talks.
“The Sofa [Status of Forces Agreement] is dead in the water,” said one Iraqi politician close to the talks.
He added that Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, believed that signing it would be “political suicide”.
The collapse of the deal would severely undermine American policy. An agreement is needed to put America’s presence on a legal basis after the United Nations mandate for its 154,000 troops in Iraq expires on December 31.
Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, claimed last week that the deal was “mostly done”.
The draft pact, painstakingly negotiated in Baghdad by Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador, and US generals, calls for a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq’s main cities by the end of 2009 and a complete withdrawal by 2011.
The Americans made what they considered to be a significant compromise by agreeing to Iraqi jurisdiction over any troops who committed “serious crimes” while off duty.
They also agreed that American soldiers acting on their own would no longer be able to arrest suspected insurgents. They would need Iraqi permission to make arrests.
Despite the concessions it emerged this weekend that Maliki, who has grown in stature as the Iraqi armed forces have taken control of security in the main cities of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul in the past year, would block the deal.
Two other serving members of Maliki’s government confirmed his view. Iraqi politics is focused on the forthcoming provincial elections, due early next year. Maliki also faces a general election in a year’s time.
Open support for the American presence is seen as a vote-loser, even though most Iraqis tacitly acknowledge the need for troops to remain in the country until their own army can enforce order.
An unofficial poll of MPs last week revealed that the deal would fall far short of gaining majority support in parliament.
“It is absolutely impossible under any circumstances that we will accept this booby-trapped agreement,” said Nasser al-Rubaie, a spokesman for the opposition group of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shi’ite cleric.
“This is an agreement which takes Iraq out of direct occupation and puts it under colonialism with the help of the government of Iraq. It only serves the occupier,” said Rubaie, who is also an MP.
That view was echoed across the political spectrum. Politicians also pointed out that they saw no reason to sign such a contentious accord with the lame duck administration of President George W Bush.
“From a political point of view, how is it possible to sign an agreement with an administration which only has a few days left in power, taking into consideration the changes that will possibly take place if the Democrats were to come to power?” said Hussein al-Falluji, an MP for Iraqi Accord, a Sunni party.
If the deal fails the Americans may be forced to ask Iraq to return to the UN security council for a temporary renewal of their mandate, but the legal status of many of their actions will become uncertain.
Additional reporting: Ali Rifat in Amman