Several recent articles shed some new light on the status of the SOFA negotiations and Maliki’s intentions. With the UN mandate’s deadline rapidly approaching and our Presidential election looming large, Maliki seems to be playing a game of ‘chicken’ with Shrub over the SOFA. Having forced Shrub to concede on the once inviolate red line of a time line for a full withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, Maliki appears to be unsatisfied and is pushing for the further concessions on the legal immunity for US forces and private contractors. Which I had previously thought Maliki would still allow, albeit reluctantly…

I was wrong…

Transcript: interview between Nouri al-Maliki and The Times

Do you think that the "Status of Forces Agreement" between Iraq and America will be decided by the end of the year?

The agreement is important to us and necessary and signing it before the expiry of the international resolution that covers the legal side for the presence of the coalition forces on December 31, 2008.

We want to sign such an agreement so that we don’t go to the Security Council (for an extension of the mandate) … You know that the Security Council is now going through crisis. There are differences among the members… Our desire is to sign the treaty but this desire is also governed by the national will, which are represented by demands that are still the point of dialogue between us and the American side.

We have made clear advances in many demands … We reached agreements, that are considered important and crucial in Iraq, for the final withdrawal (of all US forces) by the end of 2011, and the withdrawal from (Iraqi) cities by June 30, 2009. Laying down rules for the movement of the forces and their activities and not to carry out military operations or arrests unless they have permission from the Iraqi Government …

Like I said yesterday after I met Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, there are obstacles along the road before signing the agreement in the near future.

We have presented a full view to the American side about these obstacles, which include the issue of legal sponsorship (Iraqi jurisdiction over US soldiers) and the issue of the inspection of weapons and machinery that come into Iraq to ensure that they are suitable for the security mission …

By … responding to the Iraqi demands we will be very close to signing the treaty, but if they (Americans) do not respond to them I believe that the treaty will go through difficult circumstances and may not get the approval of the Parliament … Any agreement must be approved by Parliament, which has the final decision.

Is the biggest obstacle America’s demand for immunity for its forces when they are not on duty?

Yes, yes definitely. If Iraqi and American soldiers move in an operation that is pre-agreed by both sides then they have the immunity unless he (an American soldier) commits a deliberate crime during the operation. He is just like the Iraqi solider in the operation. He has immunity…

The sticking point is about if the American soldier was not on a mission and commits a crime that is accountable to the Iraqi judicial system, whether small or big. The Iraqi judicial system should have jurisdiction over the American soldier. This is the point of difference.

Maliki addresses some of the precarious circumstances facing Shrub and our continued presence… Namely, that Russia could play the ultimate spoiler on an UN continuation on the mandate… Coupled with the fact that Maliki will submit the SOFA to the Iraqi Parliament for approval before submitting it to the Presidential Board as Lady Bird pointed out, casts the whole process in a new light…

Maliki’s government turned the political procedures around, instead of passing the final document to the Presidential Council to approve the final document and then passing it to the parliament, a political decision issued today that the parliament should approves the final document before passing it to the Presidential Council.

Turning this process around means more delay since the parliament is divided on SOFA’s approval and that can takes months before the parl. Members can reach “something” and all that time SOFA is still on halt and invalid. This allows Maliki to buy more time.

Now, as Karen DeYoung of the WaPo points out, a Plan B emerges…

Another alternative would amount to a simple handshake agreement between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Bush to leave things as they are until a new deal, under a new U.S. administration, can be negotiated.

Hmmm… A mere handshake, eh? How legal is that? Interestingly, Maliki calls out that bluff in the Times interview…

Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said in an interview with the London Times newspaper Monday that if there was no agreement and no renewal of the U.N. mandate, "the U.S. forces will be confined to their bases and have to withdraw from Iraq." But he added that "a sudden withdrawal may harm security."

The Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashimi told McClatchy’s Leila Fadel

Hashimi also expressed strong concern that the improved security situation in Iraq could deteriorate just as the U.N. mandate runs out.

Hashimi’s statement on the agreement contradicted more upbeat comments from Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte during a recent visit to Iraq and from Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, who’s said that a deal is close.[…]

However, Hashimi said that even if the two negotiating teams can agree on a final text, the draft must then win the approval of Iraq’s cabinet, a special political council for national security and the parliament. "I’m not sure that the time we have left is enough for all of these organizations to study it, revise it and agree on the text," he said.[…]

The U.S. government has said that the mandate must be renewed if no agreement is reached, or U.S. forces will withdraw, Hashimi said. But it takes time to pull out more 130,000 troops, presenting a new problem about who’d have jurisdiction during a technically illegal occupation.

Hashimi also warned that the security situation could worsen by the end if 2008, due to upcoming provincial elections and an unsure future for a U.S. sponsored mostly Sunni paramilitary groups

Ironically, both Hashimi and Maliki fret over the immediate withdrawal of US forces, but, it appears that that will be the consequence of the game of chicken… Funny how that works out, eh?

Gotta love Shrub’s intransigence! It causes his horror scenario of ‘retreat and defeat!’ I’m sure Obama and the Dems will get the blame… What say you?