By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 22, 2008 - The Pentagon remains focused on getting a status of forces agreement with Iraq, and not on contingency plans, despite the Iraqi government's reluctance to come to a resolute position regarding the draft agreement, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said at a news conference today. "I don't think we're at the point of making contingency plans on what we should do if we don't reach an agreement," Morrell said. "The focus is getting this deal done, and the hope is that we don't have to cease operations come January 1, 2009, and that we can continue to assist the Iraqis on the security front."
Without an agreement, U.S. forces in Iraq would have to cease operations after the United Nations mandate under which they're now operating expires Dec. 31.
Senior U.S. military and Defense Department leaders, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have repeatedly voiced their concerns for the future security of Iraq and the consequences they anticipate if the agreement is not signed, Morrell said.
"With regards to the possibility of reopening negotiation, [Gates] believes that this is a good deal," Morrell said. "This is a deal that is the product of seven months of intense negotiations that required compromises by both the Iraqis and the United States -- compromises, though, that never required us to in any way compromise our core principles, our values.
"This deal respects Iraqi sovereignty," he continued. "It respects and grants their desire to assume control of their security situation and to hopefully have U.S. forces out of the country by the end of 2011."
If the agreement fails, the next option for the United States is to request an extension to the current U.N. mandate, which has no guarantee for a clean "rollover" into the new year, Morrell said.
Although Iraqi security forces now are dramatically improved, much larger and much more capable, Morrell said, Pentagon officials believe they're not ready to take on full responsibilities for security operations.
"We believe [the Iraqis] still need [U.S. security assistance] and will need it for some time," he said. "There is far greater confidence in their abilities than any time since the invasion in 2003, so that's where our focus is right now, trying to get this deal done, [and] not trying to stand down in the event that we don't have the authority to operate there."
Pentagon officials are aware that some Iraqi politicians have objections to the draft agreement, but they have not had any direct negotiations regarding specific concerns with those politicians, Morrell said. However, if the Iraqi politicians or even U.S. Congress members were to discover aspects unaccounted for in the agreement, the United States would be more than willing to assess those issues, he added.
"We would certainly have to take a hard look at [those issues]," Morrell said. "But that's a pretty high bar, because [the negotiators] have been exhaustive in their efforts to cover any and every possibility and requirement for continued operations in Iraq, while at the same time providing the Iraqis with the sovereignty and function of greater security responsibilities that they require."
Morrell also denounced accusations that may have been made by Iraqi political leaders stating the United States is trying to force Iraq's government to sign the agreement.
"That couldn't be further from the truth," he said, noting that the draft agreement was produced by Iraqi and U.S. collaboration. The Iraqi negotiators were hand-picked by Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to participate in the process, he added.
"We are not trying to pressure the Iraqis or force the Iraqis to sign anything they don't want to sign," he said. "But the truth is this document is the result of seven months of negotiations, and [the Iraqis] have been intimately involved in the document that resulted from this negotiation.
"We all played a role in this process," he continued, "and now it's circulating throughout the Iraqi political system and the U.S. political system, and we hope at the end of that we'll all agree this is the best deal, and this is what we need to go forward come 2009."