July 2, 2008
Iraq said on Wednesday it was on the verge of agreeing a controversial pact with the United States that will govern US troop levels and ground rules in the nation beyond 2008 when the UN mandate expires.
Tough negotiations between Washington and Baghdad on the security deal had yielded recent progress and an initial framework arrangement was “almost finalized”, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told a press briefing.
“We are talking about a strategic framework agreement that will improve cooperation between Iraq and the United States on a whole range of issues… we have almost finalized the document.”
In Washington, the US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe declined to comment on Zebari’s comments but said “negotiations are continuing on a regular basis.”
Zebari also announced that Jordan’s King Abdullah II will visit to Iraq soon, in what would be the first trip by an Arab head of state since the 2003 war.
No date has been set for the visit, which follows Jordan’s appointment on Monday of an ambassador to Baghdad, but Zebari hailed the visit as a signal of the region’s growing confidence in Iraq.
“The confidence of Arab countries has grown in Iraq. It is very encouraging and shows greater confidence in the country,” he said.
Washington has been urging its Arab allies, notably regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, to send ambassadors and officials to Baghdad to help shore up support for the country’s mainly Shiite and Kurd leadership.
That diplomatic push comes amid the complex and difficult security negotiations that Baghdad and Washington are trying to conclude before a July 31 deadline.
The security agreement aims to set down the ground rules for a continuing US troop presence in Iraq after the December expiry of a UN mandate governing the presence of foreign soldiers in the country.
Iraqis are fiercely opposed to a large American troop presence on their soil, but at the same time want a guarantee that Washington will defend the country from foreign invasion.
“Our instructions from my government is to reach an acceptable agreement to preserve Iraqi sovereignty and the United States’ position has been supportive,” Zebari said. “There was a great deal of misrepresentation, confusion and politicking on this issue.”
US President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki agreed in principle last November to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Iraq by the end of July.
But discussions appeared to reach a deadlock last month amid strong opposition from Iraqi political factions with some Shiite leaders denouncing the proposed agreement as “eternal slavery” for the country.
Zebari acknowledged that the negotiations had indeed been tough.
“Initially there were hard positions from both the sides. Then the US delegation showed a great deal of flexibility. That is why we have not given up hope.”
Key stumbling blocks in talks are how many bases Washington will maintain, whether US military would be allowed to arrest and detain Iraqi civilians, and whether US troops would be immune from Iraqi prosecution.
Washington has agreed to scrap immunity for foreign security contractors in Iraq, Zebari told AFP on Tuesday, removing one of the most controversial issues.
Foreign security firms have since the invasion operated virtually outside the law, neither subject to the Iraq legal system nor to US military tribunals, a right which infuriates Iraqis.
Zebari stressed that the United States could not stay in Iraq without an international legal framework, while any security arrangement would only be for “one or two years” and not for decades.
In the event that the talks broke down or a pact was delayed, Zebari said Baghdad and Washington were open to two other options.
“In case the Iraq side rejects the security pact or if it is late for some reason, we have other choices… whether we go for a substitute bilateral agreement or we go to (UN) Security Council for one year extension (of the mandate).”