Iraq and the United States have failed to meet their deadline of a long-term security deal and turn to work on some "bridge agreement" that would set a framework for U.S. troops presence in Iraq after 2008.
The deadline of July 31, put forward last November by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush, has passed without signing the long-awaited pact, though U.S. officials declared repeatedly both countries were close to conclude the deal.
Both countries intended to reach the security agreement by the deadline, but the proposed agreement had always been under fire from U.S. congressmen to Iraq's anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Iran.
The United States and Iraq were working on two pieces of agreement, one is the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) and the other is Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said in a statement.
"The SFA covers the entire range of bilateral relations including economic, cultural, diplomatic, etc. The SOFA covers military cooperation," it said, asserting that United States has such long-term agreements with many countries.
The United States and Iraq are working on some short-term "bridge agreement" or a "memorandum of understanding" (MoU) instead, after the long-term agreements of SFA and SOFA missed their deadline amid disputes and criticisms.
The reason for such short-term agreement is that signing SFA and SOFA agreements would take several years of negotiations, but the UN mandate for U.S. troops in Iraq will expire by the end of 2008.
The MoU "would allow the United States to continue military operations in Iraq until an SOFA could be completed," the U.S. embassy said.
The two sides confirmed that negotiations are underway despite the time of the negotiations, which kicked off in March, is running out.
Observers see the U.S. administration is in a hurry to seal a kind of agreement before the U.S. presidential elections this fall.
They pointed out that the U.S. administration needs a long-term troops presence to defend its allies and interests in Iraq and to encourage foreign investment in the war-torn country.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed Shiite government is facing harsh criticisms against the agreement with the United States and is trying to balance its attitude in the negotiations.
The Iraqi government needs a security agreement with the Americans to protect itself from its foes inside Iraq, while it has to keep in line with other Shiites in Iran and inside Iraq who oppose permanent U.S. troops presence in the country.
Not only Shiites, the majority of Iraqis see the agreement as a surrender of Iraq's sovereignty to an occupying force and fear it would lead to a permanent presence of U.S. troops.
Anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr Thursday urged the Iraqi government not to sign the agreement and offered public and political support for Maliki's government if it refrains from signing the agreement.
Earlier, Sadr called on followers to hold weekly protest against the negotiations until the government agrees to a referendum on the U.S. presence. Thousands have responded to his call.
Iran opposes any deal between Baghdad and Washington extending the presence of U.S. troops in its neighbor.
Iraq's Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite, went further and doubted whether his country could sign a security agreement with Bush's administration or even with the coming administration after the presidential elections in the United States.
"I am not sure whether this will happen during either administration, but if Iraq's demands are met, then we may reach a protocol or a sort of agreement," Mahdi was quoted as saying in an interview with local media issued on the website of the Iraqi presidency council.
"We are not going to sign a treaty, this is unlikely," he said, adding that Iraq needs agreements that could control the actions of foreign troops on its land.
Observers questioned how strong Iraq's negotiation position is in such agreement with the world supreme power. It is believed that the Iraqi government's room to maneuver may be limited due to its dependence on U.S. troops to secure its borders and protect it from armed groups that defy its authority.
However, if Baghdad fails to reach agreement with Washington, it could seek a further extension of the UN mandate, though it has said the current extension is the last one.