UK in wrangle with Iraq over immunity of troops


London : British officials were reported Saturday to be locked in last-minute talks with the Iraqi government aimed at securing immunity for the UK troops before the UN mandate expires before the end of the year.

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Defence Secretary John Hutton was said to be even threatening to immediately withdraw the 4,100 troops unless they were given protection from prosecution under a Status of Forces Agreement similar for US forces.

“I won’t hesitate to pull them out. They have to be protected and the way things stand at the moment they will not be,” Hutton was quoted saying by the Daily Telegraph.

The Defence Secretary, it said, accepts that this could be seen as an “ignominious exit after six years in Iraq, but he has told the Iraqis he is not prepared to compromise with the safety of British forces.”

Last month, the US reached a controversial agreement with Iraq on legal safeguards for American troops that needed to be ratified by Baghdad’s parliament but only after protracted negotiations.

The Telegraph said that without an explicit agreement to replace the UN mandate, British troops could be prosecuted if they kill someone, even in self-defence.

Of the remaining British troops, around 800 are thought to be involved in training activities and mentoring outside their base at Basra air station who would be at particular risk and could lead to the programme being stopped overnight.

The majority of the deployment are confined to the base and are already due to start withdrawing at the end of January. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said almost all the troops will be out of the country by the middle of next year.

But despite Hutton’s threat, the Telegraph said that defence sources were insisted that the “atmospherics” of the talks are good, but could “go down to the wire,” and probably will not be concluded until after Christmas.

“We continue to negotiate our own legal arrangements, and we expect to agree a sound legal framework with the Government of Iraq,” a Ministry of Defence statement said.

The statement also claimed that regardless of the outcome of these negotiations, “we would always retain the inherent right to proportionately defend ourselves which includes the use of lethal force where appropriate.”