BAGHDAD ó Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki raised the possibility that his country won't sign a status of forces agreement with the United States and will ask U.S. troops to go home when their U.N. mandate to be in Iraq expires at the end of the year.
Maliki made the comment after weeks of complaints from Shiite Muslim lawmakers that U.S. proposals that would govern a continued troop presence in Iraq would infringe on Iraq's sovereignty.
"Iraq has another option that it may use," Maliki said during a visit to Amman, Jordan. "The Iraqi government, if it wants, has the right to demand that the U.N. terminate the presence of international forces on Iraqi sovereign soil."
Earlier, Maliki acknowledged that talks with the U.S. on a status of forces agreement "reached an impasse" after the American negotiators presented a draft that would have given the U.S. access to 58 military bases, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution for both U.S. soldiers and private contractors.
The Iraqis rejected those demands, and U.S. diplomats have submitted a second draft, which Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told McClatchy included several major concessions. Among those would be allowing Iraq to prosecute private contractors for violations of Iraqi law and requiring U.S. forces to turn over to Iraqi authorities Iraqis that the Americans detain.
Salih stressed that the Iraqi government wants to reach an agreement with the United States. But he said the Iraqi government wouldn't be pressured into accepting terms that compromised Iraq's rights as a sovereign state.
"Our American allies need to understand and realize that this agreement must be respectful of Iraqi sovereignty," Salih said. "We need them here for a while longer, and they know they have to remain here for a while."
American negotiators have hoped the talks would be finished by the end of July, but Maliki's latest remarks ó as well as those by influential members of parliament ó make that deadline seem unrealistic.
"When we got to demands made by the American side we found that they greatly infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq and this is something we can ever accept," Maliki said. "We reached a clear disagreement. But I can assure you that all Iraqis would reject an agreement that violates Iraqi sovereignty in any way."
Maliki indicated that officials on both sides were looking for an agreement.
"Negotiations will continue," Maliki said, "by adding new ideas from Plans A, then B, then C, until we reach the decision that ensures the sovereignty of Iraq."
In Baghdad, U.S. Embassy spokesman Armand Cucciniello said Maliki "was referring to the first draft" of the agreement and that negotiations would continue "based on the fundamental principle of Iraqi sovereignty. We are looking forward to a successful conclusion of the negotiations."
Some Iraqi officials, however, said they're concerned that Maliki has become overconfident of his military's ability to defend his government and might believe Iraqi forces alone can maintain security here without the help of U.S. troops.
Maliki's confidence in the security forces' abilities are fed, these officials say by the Iraqi security forces' recent successes in Basra, Mosul and Baghdad's Sadr City area, where Iraqi troops have disarmed rival Sunni and Shiite forces and brought relative calm to once troubled areas.
But many here belive that U.S. backing was critical to those successes.
"I don't know how much of this is posturing in the negotiations," said one senior government official, who asked not to be identified because he did not want to be seen as undercutting Malikiís position. "If tomorrow the Americans decide to leave, I want to caution against overconfidence. Itís still very precarious and we don't have the capabilities yet to fend for ourselves."