Negotiators have been stuck for months on the question of legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops and immunity for possible crimes. But even if the sides reach a deal in the next few days or weeks, it is not clear that a formal status-of-forces agreement could be approved by the end of the year. Maliki has pledged to submit an accord to Iraq's divided parliament before he signs it -- a promise he reaffirmed last week during a visit to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric. Sistani has said he will not endorse any document without the support of Iraq's population and political factions.
If the parliament refuses, Maliki would have "no choice" but to request a U.N. extension "because the American forces will lose their legal cover on Dec. 31," he told the Times of London in a weekend interview. "If that happens, according to international law, Iraqi law and American law, the U.S. forces will be confined to their bases and have to withdraw from Iraq," Maliki said.
U.S. officials do not dispute that the absence of an agreement would probably require an immediate end to combat operations and, at a minimum, confinement to bases on Jan. 1. Officials refused to discuss the sensitive issue on the record while negotiations are ongoing.
That would be a strange occurrence, though I would imagine that some interim agreement that allows combat troops to remain in the field will be forthcoming. My own pet theory is that a new administration coming to power in the U.S. soon is also helping to delay the deal, as the Iraqis are probably wondering what they can get out of a McCain/Obama administration.