ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT– Iraq is running out of time to approve a status of forces agreement that will let U.S. forces remain in the country past Dec. 31, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said today. Though the Iraqi security forces have made significant progress, “they will not be ready to provide for their own security by 31 December,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said.

The status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraq is critical to continued progress in Iraq, Mullen said, and the U.S. military simply cannot operate in Iraq without it.

“There are only two paths here for our continued operation,” Mullen said. “One is an agreement that allows us to stay. The other is to extend the United Nations mandate.”

Though the discussions in Iraq are the sign of a healthy debate in a burgeoning democracy, the chairman said, the time has come for action. “Certainly, I recognize the right of the people of Iraq, through their representative government, to make decisions about their sovereignty and their future,” the admiral said. “But we are clearly running out of time.”

A failure to put an agreement in place could mean a loss of ground against al-Qaida and Iranian-backed militias and criminal elements in Iraq, the admiral said. “I am increasingly concerned … by the public rhetoric as this debate goes on in Iraq that this requirement is not recognized to be as serious as it is in terms of the future security of Iraq,” he said.

It is also clear that Iran is working “working very hard to ensure this does not pass,” Mullen said. “That message should not be lost on the Iraqi people.”

Mullen said he has great confidence that the draft agreement negotiated with Iraqi officials by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker and Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Multinational Force Iraq commander, is a good one that protects American servicemembers.

“We have pushed this as the top priority for months now,” the chairman said. “It’s time for the Iraqis to make this decision.”

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