WASHINGTON: The Bush administration's quest for a deal with Iraq that would formally authorize an unlimited American troop presence there well beyond President George W. Bush's tenure appears to be unraveling. The irony is that it may be a victim of the administration's successes in the war.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq and his senior aides are now openly demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, at least on paper. That is partly a nod to Iraqi political realities, since Iraqi politicians must call for the end of American occupation. No one in Iraq realistically expects to throw out the Americans anytime soon — and few in Iraq believe that it would be safe to do so immediately.
But Maliki's once enfeebled government, emboldened by several recent military successes, is eager to assert its sovereignty.
The Iraqi demands have put Bush in a politically awkward spot.
The president has explicitly opposed any binding timetables — either from the Iraqis or from the war's critics here at home — but he also pledged less than a month ago to abide by the will of Iraq's leaders.
"You know, of course, we're there at their invitation," Bush said in Paris during his recent European tour. "This is a sovereign nation."
This new Iraqi confidence is easy to overstate, and many of the statements simply prove that Iraq's democracy has matured to the point that elected leaders there must pander to important constituencies, even if they quietly acknowledge the need for American military support for the foreseeable future.
Still, even senior American commanders now say that Iraq is taking on more responsibility for security after years of halting and uncertain progress. Lieutenant General James Dubik, who until recently oversaw the training of Iraqi forces, told Congress on Wednesday that Iraq's ground forces could be fully functional as soon as the middle of next year.
That, along with Iraqi military successes in Basra, Sadr City in Baghdad and Mosul, has made Maliki's government seem far less vulnerable than it once did.
As a result, officials and analysts say, Iraq is far less willing than it once might have been to accept every American demand in negotiations now under way to establish the legal status of foreign troops in Iraq after the end of this year.
Iraq's negotiators have already rebuffed the administration's initial demand that all American contractors in Iraq, including the security guards of companies like Blackwater, receive blanket immunity from prosecution, one administration official familiar with the talks said.
On Monday, Maliki also suggested that Iraq might prefer a less sweeping, shorter-term agreement than the long-term one he and Bush signed off on last November, when his government was nowhere near as stable or assertive as it is today.
The failure to reach a robust agreement would be a rebuke to Bush in his waning months in office just as his strategy to send thousands of extra troops to Iraq beginning last year — the "surge," as it became known — is bearing fruit. That could force the administration to compromise even more.
While the administration almost certainly will not accept a rigid, written timetable for withdrawal, one American official said on Wednesday that the White House might have to accept some language in any agreement that reflected Iraqi desires for an end of the American military presence.
Another American official in Baghdad said an accord could even include a statement like Senator John McCain's campaign proposal envisioning an end of the war in 2013, without setting a meaningful timetable. Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, on Wednesday clarified his remarks about a timetable for ending combat operations and withdrawing foreign troops to say that Iraq was seeking "planning time horizons."
The White House sought to play down the significance of the differences.
"I know people are looking at this as a sign of a split between the United States and Iraq," a spokesman, Tony Fratto, said Wednesday. "I think these are signs of encouraging developments in Iraq. They want to and are becoming much more adept at providing their own security."
Beneath the public statements of officials on both sides lies a more complicated reality, involving difficult diplomatic and legal questions.
Once the current United Nations mandate for the American-led military operation in Iraq expires at the end of the year, for example, something has to replace it. That is largely why administration officials remain confident that they will ultimately be able to reach an agreement, though the shape of it appears increasingly uncertain.
So, too, does the deadline. The White House initially hoped to reach an agreement by the end of July. Some officials in Washington now acknowledge that an accord is increasingly likely to slip to later in the year.
At a minimum, the White House has lost control of the stagecraft of the pending agreement — if not yet a deal itself — as the question of the future American role in Iraq becomes a fixture of election campaigns in both countries.
Democrats in Congress have intensified their objections to the negotiations because they would prefer to see a President Obama complete them. Maliki's government has to sell any agreement to a fractured and restive alliance of political parties with varying degrees of patience for any American military presence.
"Even the technical and mundane becomes a potential political issue," the administration official familiar with the talks said.
The official noted that the discussions involved everything from the broadest question of authorizing combat operations to the minutia of whether American soldiers will need to have Iraqi driver's licenses.
All of the main Iraqi parties, the officials and analysts said, share the goal of at least minimizing the American footprint, reflecting Iraq's desire to be sovereign and free. Although much remains uncertain, and the improvements potentially fragile, the drop in violence in Iraq — to the lowest levels since February 2004, according to the latest report by the American command in Baghdad — has made it possible to consider Iraq free and sovereign sooner than most anyone expected.
"In one sense," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington, "the best thing will be the United States getting booted out of Iraq once the Iraqis can provide their own security."
6 months ago