WaPo : Progress Cited on U.S.-Iraq Pacts

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Progress Cited on U.S.-Iraq Pacts

Foreign Minister Says Nations Are Working to Resolve Differences

By Sudarsan Raghavan | Washington Post Foreign Service | July 3, 2008

BAGHDAD, July 2 -- The United States and Iraq are making progress on complex political and security agreements that would allow U.S. troops to operate in the country next year, Iraq's foreign minister said Wednesday.

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

The comments came nearly three weeks after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared that negotiations had "reached a dead end." The talks have been bogged down by concerns over Iraq's sovereignty as well as growing fears of a possible long-term American presence.

A U.N. mandate sanctioning the U.S. role in Iraq is to expire Dec. 31, and U.S. officials have said they would like to complete a deal by the end of this month.

Zebari, who recently returned from meetings with U.S. officials in Washington, said the United States had shown "a great deal of flexibility on many thorny issues." In particular, he said, U.S. officials agreed to lift immunity for private security contractors, allowing them to be prosecuted under Iraqi law. The legal shields have enraged Iraqis, especially since 17 Iraqi civilians were killed last year in a shooting incident involving Blackwater Worldwide, a private security company.

"It is a sensitive issue for the Iraqi public," Zebari said.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said that she could not comment on the ongoing negotiations but added that they were taking place in "a constructive spirit."

Negotiations began in March on the two U.S.-drafted pacts: a status-of-forces agreement that governs the legal protections and responsibilities of U.S. troops, and a strategic framework for the overall U.S.-Iraqi political and military relationship.

Despite the progress, many hurdles remain that could delay the signing of the pacts, Zebari said. For instance, the two sides differ on the authority and level of independence of U.S. troops in future military operations.

But Zebari said U.S. negotiators were open to the idea of Iraqis controlling their own airspace, as long as they have proper air power and technology.

Zebari said immunity for U.S. troops, which many Iraqis would like lifted, was still being debated. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, American soldiers have been involved in several high-profile cases of killing, torturing or abusing Iraqis. U.S. officials have strongly opposed the lifting of immunity for American soldiers.

"Who will charge American soldiers with military violations against Iraqis, outside their official duties, when there is no combat?" Zebari asked.

The Iraqis are demanding control over detention centers where Iraqis are held and sole authority to arrest and detain Iraqis. They are also concerned about the number of U.S. military bases and how long they will be operational.

"We haven't reached any final conclusions," Zebari said. "But in all these issues, there is movement. They are not static."

Zebari said any agreement would be in place for perhaps a year or two and then subject to review. If no agreements are reached by the end of the year, he said, the sides would have to negotiate an interim deal.

Some Iraqi lawmakers welcome the idea of an interim deal. Ayad Jamaludeen, a secular Shiite member of parliament, said there was not enough time left in the Bush administration to reach a comprehensive agreement satisfactory to Iraq and the United States. After a new U.S. president is in office, "we shall both have ample time to negotiate and reach a binding agreement for both sides," he said.

But Mohsin al-Sadoun, a Kurdish lawmaker, said he preferred completing the agreements now "rather than going again to the U.N. Security Council every year or six months" for extensions.

Zebari also announced that Jordan's King Abdullah II and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would soon visit Iraq, although he did not provide dates. Abdullah would become the first Arab head of state to visit Iraq since the invasion.

In the southern city of Amarah, Iraqi security forces arrested three top loyalists of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in a crackdown on militias, police said. Sadr officials said the men -- Abdul Jabar Wahid, Abdul Latif Jawad and Fadhil Na'ima -- are senior members of the local governing council in Maysan province, of which Amarah is the capital.

Salah al-Obaidi, a senior spokesman for Sadr, denounced the arrests as part of a concerted effort by the Iraqi government to undermine the cleric's movement. Sadr had agreed to cooperate with the military offensive in Amarah as long as Iraqi soldiers did not indiscriminately target his followers without proper evidence and court-issued arrest warrants. Obaidi said the arrests violated the deal.

"In every province where a military operation takes place, the first to be targeted are the Sadrists," Obaidi said. "We are at a point where there is no longer a chance for negotiation, understanding or dialogue."

Special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad, Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.