BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's interim leaders said yesterday that they could not negotiate a formal agreement with the U.S. military on maintaining troops in Iraq, and that the task must await the next sovereign Iraqi government.
The delay could put the Americans in the position of negotiating an agreement with leaders they did not appoint on such sensitive issues as when the use of force would be allowed.
It also means that another feature of the agreement of Nov. 15, which set out the steps to sovereignty, will not occur on schedule. Other things falling by the wayside are the approval of an interim constitution, which was supposed to occur by this Saturday, and the now-abandoned plan to hold caucuses to pick a transitional assembly.
But the Americans have clung to the final date of handing power to a new Iraqi administration -- June 30.
Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the region, recently suggested that the military agreement would not occur according to the original timetable, but he expressed confidence that whatever the new conditions might be, the U.S. military would be treated hospitably. Simply put, no Iraqi government could survive without the U.S. forces, according to U.S. commanders.
A formal agreement governing U.S. forces in Iraq could touch on many issues, including the number of remaining U.S. troops and their location. As a guest rather than an occupying power, the United States would probably have somewhat less leverage than it now enjoys over Iraq's leaders.
"Legally and in every other sense, the new sovereign Iraqi government will have the power to say, 'Thanks very much, we don't need you, go home,'" said Samir Sumaidy, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. "That is probably unlikely. But legally we will have the power."
While the council members have not agreed on a mechanism to choose a new government, a team of experts from the United Nations has visited the country to investigate the issue. It concluded last week that direct nationwide elections were not feasible before June 30.
Today, Secretary-General Kofi Annan is expected to give a new report on the question.