U.S.-Iraq security pact faces objections

By Jamal Hashim, Xinhua,

Baghdad : The long-delayed agreement which will keep the U.S. troops in Iraq after 2008 is confronted with objections as the expiration of the UN mandate is looming near.

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The largest political bloc in the parliament, the Unified Iraqi Alliance (UIA), raised issue with a draft of the agreement on Sunday, further blurring the prospect that the deal will be able to come through by year’s end.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki reviewed with top leaders of the UIA the current draft and said changes still needed to be made in order to guarantee Iraq’s sovereignty and the interests of its people, according to a statement by the Shiite camp which groups Maliki’s Dawa party and the powerful Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).

“Although there are positive points in this agreement, there are others need more time for discussion, dialogue and modifications for some articles,” the statement said.

It did not specify which points the leaders were unsatisfied with.

Yet, a senior figure of the UIA told the Arabia TV channel that the leaders had reservations on seven items, including immunity for U.S. troops and contractors.

The negotiations, which commenced in sincere in March, have overshot a planned deadline at the end of July amid heated haggles over items the Iraqis regard as concerning national sovereignty and interests.

Both sides have not yet published formal and completed version of the security agreement.

Iraqi and U.S. officials have reportedly said the sticking point was whether U.S. military personnel and contractors would be subject to the Iraqi law, at least partially.

Reports said the U.S. side would have jurisdiction over its troops and contractors involved in crimes within their bases or during authorized missions, while Iraqi authorities would be able to deal with cases concerning serious offenses by those people when they are outside of agreed areas or during off-duty times.

The agreement also contains a timetable for the withdrawal of the U.S. military from Iraqi cities and towns by June 30, 2009 and from Iraqi territory by Dec. 31, 2011. But the stay could be extended if the Iraqi government would ask so based on condition assessment.

If failed in reaching the deal, Iraq and the U.S. will have to seek to renew the UN authorization to make the American troops to stay here legally.

Maliki has been pressing Washington to accept the draft instead of going back to the UN.

“We want to sign such an agreement so that we don’t go to the Security Council,” he said in an interview carried by Times on Oct.11, suggesting that process would also be bumpy road. “You know that the Security Council is now going through crisis. There are differences among the members.”

Once the U.S. troops lose legal status here, they “will be confined to their bases and have to withdraw from Iraq. We always say that a sudden withdrawal may harm security,” he said.

Before going to the parliament, the draft needs the endorsement of the cabinet and a security committee consisting of president, vice presidents, prime minister, speaker of the parliament and leaders of major parties.

To sell it to the lawmakers is expected to be tough.

The UIA holds 85 of the 275 seats in the parliament. Iraq’s Kurds, who have been favoring a continued U.S. presence here, controls 53.

The Sunni parties have not yet given an explicit stance on the text of the security pact, while Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose faction holds 30 seats, is a long-time hard-liner in demanding a swift leave of foreign troops.

Iran, the arch-rival of the U.S., strongly opposes the deal. Most of Shiite parties and prominent political and religious leaders have close ties with the neighbor.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said senior military leaders are satisfied with the agreement, with which the U.S. troops will be “well protected.”

On Friday, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said it will be difficult for the two sides to reopen negotiations on the agreement draft.