At a Council on Foreign Relations meeting the other evening, I asked Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what the position of American forces in Iraq would be after the handover of sovereignty scheduled for June 30.
Carefully, he replied that the coalition forces would remain at the request of the Iraqi government, and that their exact authority is "still being worked out."
Actually, negotiations with the interim government have reached an apparent deadlock. And The New York Times reports that the current Governing Council has decided to leave the issue to the new sovereign government, having concluded that the question is too momentous to be handled without a popular mandate from the Iraqi people.
What is involved here is a "status of forces" agreement that can determine everything from when coalition troops go into battle against insurgents to who is in charge when a soldier commits a crime.
The Bush administration has been especially resistant to granting foreign authority over American troops. For that reason, it has shunned the idea of a United Nations rapid-reaction force and the international criminal court. There have been bitter disputes with Japan over accusations of sexual assault by US soldiers stationed in Okinawa.
The Bush administration continues to insist on a transfer of authority to the Iraqis on June 30, even though the timetable for preliminary steps has been slipping.
A draft constitution was supposed to be ready by Saturday. Apparently it won't be. The status of forces agreement was supposed to be ready by the end of March. This is unlikely.
It can be a delicate matter, after a war, converting occupiers to allies and making friends of enemies. And equally delicate is handing over the reins of government to untried leaders who have often been divided by ethnic hatred and suspicions.
And, without knowing what a sovereign government will look like and what the security situation will be, it is hard to imagine the Bush administration ceding, or even sharing, authority over American forces.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.