The US secretary of defence Robert Gates warned yesterday of "pretty dramatic" consequences of not having an accord governing the presence of US troops in Iraq. As Baghdad leaders said they wanted more changes to the draft agreement now under review, though, the US defence chief also said the door was "pretty far closed" on further negotiations ? though it wasn't slammed shut, he added. "The consequences of not having a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and of not having a renewed UN authorisation are pretty dramatic in terms of consequences for our actions," said Mr Gates.
A status of forces agreement would replace the current UN mandate ? which expires December 31 ? as the legal basis for the US military presence in Iraq. "Clearly, the clock is ticking," said Mr Gates. "Clearly there is a need to keep moving just so that we don't run out of time." Yesterday the Iraqi prime minister Nuri al Maliki's cabinet called for changes to the planned security pact, unanimously agreeing to seek unspecified amendments, according to a government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.
"The cabinet called on the ministers to submit their suggestions to be included in the negotiations with the US," he said. The demand for changes is expected to significantly delay the agreement, which still must be approved by the Iraqi parliament after endorsement by the cabinet. Iraq's Al Sharqiya television reported that ministers from both the largest Sunni block ? the National Concord Front ? and the ruling Shiite grouping, the United Iraqi Alliance, wanted amendments.
But Mr Gates and other US officials stressed that the current document should be acceptable to both sides. "We believe that this is a good text. We wouldn't have had the secretary of state and the secretary of defence making phone calls about this text, if we didn't think it was a good text," the State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. According to Mr Gates ,there are "only two alternatives: the SOFA or a renewed UN mandate, and going back to the UN at this point there is no assurance that you get a clean rollover."
He said there is "great reluctance" to craft further changes, as the US government consults with Congress on the current draft. But, Mr Gates said, "if they (Baghdad or Congress) were to come up with something we haven't thought of, or identify problems we missed some way, we would have to take that seriously. "So I don't think you slam the door shut. But I would say it's pretty far closed." Earlier yesterday, Iraq's cabinet met on the pact and unanimously called for changes despite US warnings that time is running out for Baghdad to approve the deal.