July 04, 2008

Iraq talks advance on deal for US troops

By Sudarsan Raghavan in Baghdad

Published: July 3 2008 03:00 | Last updated: July 3 2008 03:00

The US and Iraq are making progress towards forging a complex political and security agreement to allow US troops to operate legally in Iraq next year, Iraq's foreign minister said yesterday.

"We have reached a comfortable stage of negotiations and the differences have been narrowed," said Hoshyar Zebari.

The comments came two weeks after Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, said that the negotiations had "reached a dead end".

The talks have been bogged down by concerns over Iraq's sovereignty as well as a growing fear of a possible long-term US presence. A United Nations mandate sanctioning the US role in Iraq is due to expire on December 31 and US officials have said they would like a deal completed by the end of this month.

Mr Zebari, who recently returned from meetings in Washington, said the US had shown "a great deal of flexibility on many thorny issues". In particular, he said US officials had agreed to lift immunity for private security contractors, opening them up to prosecution under Iraqi laws. The legal shields have enraged Iraqis, especially after a shooting incident last year involving Blackwater, a private security company, left 17 civilians dead.

"It is a sensitive issue for the Iraqi public," Mr Zebari said. The US embassy said it could not comment on the negotiations, but said they were taking place in "a constructive spirit".

Many hurdles remain, Mr Zebari said. The two sides differ on the authority and level of independence given to US troops in further military operations. He said joint committees could be created to approve in advance all US military operations.

Another point of contention is control of Iraq's airspace. Mr Zebari said that US negotiators were open to the idea of Iraq controlling its own skies as long as they have the proper air power and technology.

Other sticking points include immunity for US troops, which many Iraqis would like to see lifted. Since the US-led invasion in 2003, there have been several high-profile cases of the killing, torture and abuse of Iraqis at the hands of American soldiers. The US has strongly opposed any lifting of immunity for its soldiers.

"Who will charge American soldiers with military violations against Iraqis, outside their official duties, when there is no combat?" said the foreign minister, referring to one of the central questions in the talks.

The Iraqis are also demanding control over all detention centres.

Mr Zebari said: "In all these issues, there is movement. They are not static."

He also said Jordan's King Abdullah and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, would visit Iraq soon but gave no dates.

No comments: