The Cable

Iraq negotiations: Not dead but on life support

The Obama administration's negotiations with the government of Iraq regarding a post-2011 U.S. troop presence are ongoing, but the prospects of reaching an agreement are dwindling fast, according to close observers of the process.

"I would just say that, despite some of the reports that you may have seen over the weekend, that no final decisions have been made," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters today in response to several reports over the weekend that the negotiations to keep thousands of U.S. military personnel in Iraq past 2011 have broken down.

"At the present time I'm not discouraged because we're still in negotiations with the Iraqis," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday.

Discussions with the Iraqis have focused on the administration's demand that U.S. troops remaining in Iraq have immunity from Iraqi courts. In August, Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida'ie told The Cable that a deal on immunity was in the works and that the Iraqis would formally request an extension of thousands of U.S. troops' presence "in our own sweet time."

But the current U.S.-Iraq bilateral agreements dictate that all U.S. troops must withdraw by the end of the year, and as time runs out, the chances of a deal on immunity are fading fast.

Ramzy Mardini, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of War who traveled to Iraq in July, said that the reason a deal isn't likely is because, though there is a consensus among Iraqi leaders of the necessity for a post-2011 U.S. military presence, State Department lawyers determined that the immunity is necessary and can only be ensured if the Iraqi parliament formally endorsed it.

That's impossible for an Iraqi legislature that is not strong enough to publicly support what many Iraqis will view as an extension of the American occupation, Mardini said, and the Obama administration won't budge from this condition.

"That's the red line for the U.S., and unfortunately that's the red line for the Iraqis as well," he said. "Now the talk has gone to a new phase where it doesn't seem that we're going to get the immunities that are needed, and that's a deal breaker for the U.S."

The Iraqi parliament is actually on holiday right now and returns to work Nov. 20. Upon returning, its next adjournment will be Dec. 5, so that constitutes the window of opportunity for a measure to offer immunity. But nobody thinks that is likely.

The Iraqi government has always wanted the immunity to be granted through a government-to- government memorandum of understanding. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Al-Masar television station on Monday, "The immunity we had said is not possible, and from the beginning we have said that it can't get the approval from the parliament."

Officially, the U.S.-Iraq bilateral negotiations are led by U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey and Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. But the key interlocutor on the immunity issue is Brett McGurk, who served on the National Security Council during the Bush and Obama administrations and was brought back in by Obama to renegotiate the Bush-era agreements.

For observers like Mardini, the entire episode is symbolic of the Iraqi government's fragility and its inability to make decisions, as well as of the Obama administration's failure to adequately transition from a military to a diplomatic strategy in Iraq.

"The Obama administration came into office with the wrong mindset in Iraq. From the get-go, it was a hands-off diplomatic approach," he said. "We had all our eggs in the military and security baskets, and when that's gone, there won't be much left to sustain. The reality on the ground is that the U.S. is at risk of losing its influence in Iraq."

The Cable

Mitchell: Burma's political prisoner release not enough

The Obama administration is considering easing sanctions on the Burmese government, but the release last week of about 200 political prisoners is not enough to prove the junta is really changing, according to Derek Mitchell, the State Department's special representative and policy coordinator for Burma.

"Any political prisoners are too many political prisoners, and what we're looking for is release of all political prisoners without condition, to really send the signal of genuine commitment to democracy in the country," Mitchell told reporters at a special State Department briefing Monday.

Reports have noted that the initial release of prisoners by the junta is only a fraction of the total of over 2,000 estimated political prisoners in the country and doesn't include many prominent political prisoners whom the international community is advocating for. Those include student leader Min Ko Naing, activist leader Ko Ko Gyi, and many others.

Mitchell names Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi as examples of political prisoners the Obama administration would like to see released as proof that the junta's new attitude is serious.

"I said directly to the leadership that these are the people that if you're serious about democratic reform, you would see as allies, because they actually are seeking the same goals you are," he said. "I'm not sure we've seen anything necessarily exactly like we've seen over the past several months.... But there are still questions about how far they're going to go and where this is going to lead."

Mitchell also said that real engagement by the United States and the international community can't be fully realized until the Burmese government stops the abuses and attacks on ethnic minorities near Burma's borders.

 "Their violence continues. Credible reports of human rights abuses, including against women and children, continue," he said. "And in fact we made it very clear that we could not have a transformed relationship as long as these abuses and credible reports of abuses occur and as long as there is not dialogue with these groups and with the opposition and violence remains -- then that will be a constraint on the relationship."

Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable that the junta often uses the release of small numbers of political prisoners as a bargaining chip for short-term political gain and to dilute international pressure.

The junta hasn't even acknowledged the numbers of political prisoners in its control, he said, and is claiming it only has 600 political prisoners under arrest.

"The best way to confirm the numbers of political prisoners is to allow the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to visit all prisoners and conduct an investigation about their numbers and situation," he said. "I hope the United States government continues to push the regime to allow the ICRC to visit prisons, confirm the numbers of political prisoners, and release them as soon as possible."

Aung Din participated in a Burma discussion last week at the Heritage Foundation with Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski; Jared Genser, founder and president of Freedom Now; and Walter Lohman, director of Heritage's Asian Studies Center.

The group's consensus was that the junta's moves are heavy on form and light on substance and have been tried multiple times in the past.

Genser laid out several items of perceived progress and concluded, "An analysis of those items where people are pointing to potential progress are, in fact, so far mostly illusory, particularly when you put this in the context of recent Burmese history."