June 18, 2008 / 5:53 PM / 12 years ago

Iraq, U.S. working to agree pact by July deadline

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq said on Wednesday it was committed to meeting a deadline for a long-term security pact with the United States, as Washington confirmed it dropped a demand concerning the divisive issue of immunity for private contractors.

The two countries are negotiating a new security deal to provide a legal basis for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires on Dec. 31, and a separate long-term agreement on political, economic and security ties.

After five years in Iraq, President George W. Bush’s administration has set an end-July target for wrapping up the negotiations, even as some Iraqi officials have questioned whether that timetable can be met.

An Iraqi government statement said Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari had discussed with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington on Tuesday “the need to conclude” the long-term strategic framework agreement.

“Both agreed the importance of completing this agreement before the end of July to avoid any legal vacuum that may arise as a result of the U.N. mandate expiring,” it said.

That came just days after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said talks on the security pact were at a stalemate because of U.S. demands that encroached on Iraq’s sovereignty.

One U.S. demand, however, has been taken off the table, according to a senior U.S. military official in Washington.

That official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Bush administration is no longer seeking legal immunity for private contractors working in Iraq, a troubling prospect for many Iraqis who see the contractors as a security force that operates with little accountability.

“That’s been taken off the table now ... There’s just no precedent for that. The Iraqis know that,” he said.

But even a shift on one of the talks’ thorny issues cannot guarantee the two sides will reach agreement by August.

SUBJECT OF DEBATE

The talks have sparked heated debate both in Iraq and the United States, where Democrat lawmakers fear any agreement could lock the military into a long-term presence in Iraq and bind the hands of the next U.S. president.

Democrats have also argued the deal should be sent to lawmakers for review and perhaps approval, especially if it commits U.S. forces to defend Iraq against foreign aggression.

The Washington Post quoted Zebari on Wednesday saying U.S. and Iraqi officials had reworded that commitment proposed by the White House to defend Iraq in an effort to avoid submitting the deal for congressional approval.

The alternative being discussed would commit U.S. forces to “help Iraqi security forces to defend themselves” rather than to defend Iraq, the newspaper quoted Zebari as saying.

While publicly, senior U.S. officials say they are committed to securing a long-term deal with Iraq, there has been some frustration with the lack of progress, especially as time runs out on the U.N. mandate and the Bush administration, which leaves office in January.

The U.S. military officer said the easiest solution would be to extend the mandate for another year.

The United States has revealed few details of the talks, but Maliki said last week Iraq objected to giving U.S. forces freedom to detain Iraqis or to conduct operations independent of Iraqi control.

Zebari told The Washington Post that joint “commissions” would be formed to supervise U.S. military operations and detentions of Iraqi citizens.

The United States has similar “status of forces” agreements with 80 countries, with provisions to protect U.S. soldiers from prosecution by a foreign judiciary.

The controversy surrounding immunity for contractors from prosecution stems partly from an incident in Baghdad in September 2007 in which guards working for U.S. private security firm Blackwater were accused of killing 17 Iraqis.

The shooting enraged the Iraqi government and triggered an investigation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation that is still under way.

Reporting by Adrian Croft, Waleed Ibrahim and Missy Ryan

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