Did Obama Engage as US-Iraqi Troop Talks Faltered?

Baghdad – Throughout the summer and autumn, as talks on a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq foundered, President Barack Obama and his point man on Iraq, Vice President Joe Biden, remained largely aloof from the process, logs released by the U.S. Embassy here suggest.

The omission would be an unusual one, given the high priority U.S. officials had given to achieving an agreement for some sort of residual U.S. presence in Iraq after the Dec. 31 pullout deadline, and the White House labeled the suggestion inaccurate. A spokesman said the logs released by the embassy were incomplete.

The listing provided by the embassy — drawn, the embassy said, from the White House website — indicates that Obama had no direct contact with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki between Feb. 13, when he telephoned the prime minister, until Friday, when he called Maliki to tell him U.S. troops would be withdrawn by Dec. 31.

The embassy listing prepared from the White House's own records showed that Biden telephoned Maliki on Dec. 21, the day Maliki formed a new government, and visited here Jan. 18, but had no direct contact after that date, according to the official listing.

A White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor, noted, however, that Maliki's office released a statement Sept. 22 saying that Maliki and Biden had had a phone conversation that day in which the disposition of U.S. troops after Dec. 31 was discussed. He said the embassy list obviously had been prepared by someone not familiar with the full range of contacts.

Vietor declined to provide any details about the president's contacts, however.

“The VP talked to senior Iraqi leaders multiple times during that period of time,” Vietor wrote in an email. “The President also engaged with Iraqi leaders. Your story is totally wrong.”

U.S. Embassy officials, asked in July whether Biden was coming to help secure the deal, which military officers said needed to be concluded by July 31 for planning purposes, said the vice president was too busy trying to end the donnybrook in Congress over raising the national debt ceiling to visit Iraq.

Iraqi government spokesman Tahseen al Shaikhli said he could not explain the lack of contact between Maliki and top-level Americans.

“You’ll have to ask (Obama) why he didn’t intervene before this, or call before this,” he said.

Shaikhli said his government still hopes that an invitation that Obama extended for a meeting with Maliki in December might lead to an agreement between the two countries that would allow uniformed U.S. trainers to deploy to Iraq.

“Maybe when they sit together, they will solve most of the problems,” he said, adding, “Or maybe they will complicate it more.”

The issue of whether some U.S. troops might remain in Iraq after the Dec. 31 date, which was set by the so-called Status of Forces Agreement that the administration of President George W. Bush negotiated with the Iraqi government, had always been a complicated one _ both for Iraqi officials and Obama, who promised as a presidential candidate in 2008 that he would bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.

Maliki announced on May 11 that he would consult politicians at every level before deciding whether to ask the United States to keep troops here, and he said he hoped to reach a decision by July 31, the date set by the U.S. military. Iraqi officials soon were saying that the country was hoping that at least 10,000 to 15,000 troops would stay behind.

Iraqi political leaders, with the exception of followers of the militant Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr and veteran politician Ahmed Chalabi, indicated that they would favor the continued presence of U.S. forces, but they were less certain about the U.S. demand to provide immunity from prosecution for troops serving here.

The top politicians, already gridlocked on other security issues, including who would serve as ministers of defense and the interior, were unable to agree at the initial sessions.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flew to Baghdad on July 11, his first trip since becoming defense secretary, but he didn't make any headway. “I’d like things to move a lot faster here, frankly,” he told U.S. troops then. “Do you want us to stay, don’t you want us to stay? Damn it, make a decision.”

A major complication was the insistence by the Obama administration that the accord go before the Iraqi parliament, something that in the end Iraqi politicians decided was impossible. But whether that restriction was necessary is an open question. Many status-of-forces agreements are signed at the executive level only, particularly in countries without elected legislatures.

But the White House turned the issue over to the State Department’s legal affairs office, reporters in Baghdad were told on Saturday. The lawyers gave a variety of options, but Obama chose the most stringent, approval by Iraq's legislature of a new agreement, citing as precedent that the Iraqi parliament had approved the 2008 agreement, reporters were told.

By mid-September, Iraqi government spokesmen had lowered their goal for a continued presence of U.S. military trainers to about 3,000. But they were also determined not to give in on the American demand for immunity for U.S. troops.

When the Iraqis announced that they'd reached a decision Oct. 4 to request trainers, the figure was “more than 5,000,” according to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who told reporters Oct. 10 that Iraqi was seeking a “yes or no” response from the Americans. He said there would be no grant of immunity to Americans who stayed behind, however, something the Pentagon had previously said would be required if any troops were to remain.

Whether an earlier Obama intervention would have changed the course of the talks is unknowable.

Shaikhli, the Iraqi spokesman, said his government still is hoping for an agreement that would provide American forces with “legal protection” rather than “immunity,” meaning that the U.S. would retain jurisdiction if a soldier committed a crime against another soldier, but that Iraqi law would hold sway if the soldier were accused of injuring an Iraqi civilian.

Shaikhli said, however, that he didn't think such an agreement should be put before the Iraqi parliament.

“We have to wait until the negotiation is finished,” he said, “and we should not jump to a conclusion.”

(Steven Thomma contributed to this report from Washington.)