In what could be the single most defiant – and critical – rebuff of the Bush administration yet, the Maliki government may choose to extend the UN mandate authorizing the Iraq occupation rather than be bullied into a pair of long-term security agreements with the US.

Amid reports that the draft agreements include, among other explosive items, US plans for long-term bases, US control of airspace and immunity for all American service personnel and contractors beyond the expiration of the UN mandate in July, Iraqi officials said they may ask the UN for an extension of the current resolution as early as next week, according to a Washington Post report Friday.

This would be a blow to the Bush Administration, which had hoped to seal the deals – the Status of Forces Agreement and a still-opaque long-term strategic framework – by July, and ahead of the fall elections. They had also hoped to fast-track the process by skipping congressional approval, a move that sticks in the craw of both Republican and Democratic senators, who sent a letter to the White House yesterday, demanding a hearing.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker blamed the Iranians Thursday for whipping up rumors about the still-secret agreements. At this point, over half the Iraqi parliament has said it would not stand for compacts with Washington that didn’t include some timetable for American troop withdrawal, while other influential leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have said they will resist any encroachment on Iraqi sovereignty. This week, members of the parliament testified before our congress, making that point clear.

Crocker insists that there are no provisions in either agreement that would call for permanent bases in Iraq, US control of airspace or other measures that would give Americans the controlling hand moving forward, but without knowing the details, we cannot judge whether he is already parsing language. For example, he did not altogether dispute the administration wanted contractor immunity, saying rather, “The question of jurisdiction and immunity will be part of any negotiations on this,” which I imagine wasn’t very assuring to the Iraqis watching this unfold.

There is plenty of debate in the legal community over whether the administration has to come before congress before making these deals with Maliki. One would think, however, given the raw divisions and suspicions of congress over the war – the strong feelings of the American public against the occupation — the President would at least offer a last token of faith by bringing before the American people the blueprint for any future relationship involving our military on Iraqi soil.

It would seem that, for the first time, Iraqi politicians may be doing what everyone wanted all along – “standing up” and taking that ultimate decision out of his hands.