Iraq says talks with US on pact deadlocked

Fri Jun 13, 2008 7:35am EDT

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(Updates with analyst comment, changes translation of dead end to deadlock in paragraph 2 quote)

By Waleed Ibrahim

AMMAN, June 13 (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Friday talks with the United States on a new long-term security pact were deadlocked because of U.S. demands that infringed Iraq's sovereignty.

"We have reached a deadlock, because when we started the talks, we found that the U.S. demands hugely infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq, and this we can never accept," Maliki said, speaking in Arabic to journalists during a visit to Jordan.

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

The talks have been taking place behind closed doors. U.S. officials have refused to be drawn on their content other than to say the agreement will have no secret annexes and that it will be open to scrutiny by the Iraqi parliament.

In his first detailed comments on the talks, Maliki said Iraq objected to Washington's insistence on giving its troops immunity from prosecution in Iraq and freedom to conduct operations independent of Iraqi control.

"We can't extend the U.S. forces permission to arrest Iraqis or to undertake the responsibility of fighting terrorism in an independent way, or to keep Iraqi skies and waters open for themselves whenever they want," he said.

"One of the important issues that the U.S. is asking for is immunity for its soldiers and those contracting with it. We reject this totally."

The United States has similar "status of forces" agreements with 80 other countries, many or all of which have provisions to protect U.S. soldiers from prosecution by a foreign judiciary.



PROTEST CALL

Responding to Maliki's comments, a U.S. embassy spokesman in Baghdad said: "Talks are ongoing. We respect Iraq's sovereignty and that's the basis of the negotiations. We are still in dialogue with the Iraqis on this."

U.S. President George W. Bush said on Wednesday he was still confident of reaching an agreement with Iraq. U.S. officials say they hope to reach a deal by July, but Iraqi officials have been more cautious and have suggested that date may be missed.

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

They have also come under fire from neighbouring Iran, which fears the talks will lead to permanent U.S. bases in Iraq. Maliki travelled to Tehran this week to assure Iranian leaders that Iraq would never be used as a launchpad for attacks.

Ayatollah Mohammed Emami-Kashani, a member of Iran's highest arbitration body, on Friday called on Muslim countries to speak up against the negotiations.

"I am asking the people and the government of Iraq to stand firm against this and not to be frightened. The resistance should not be limited to Iraq. All Islamic countries and Muslims should support them," he said in Friday prayers in Tehran.

Some Iraqi politicians, including anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have also criticised the government, saying the agreement would infringe Iraq's sovereignty. The cleric has called for weekly protests after Friday prayers.

Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, described Maliki's remarks as "posturing".

"They may not agree on the terms, but both sides want this agreement. Maliki very much wants it. This may just be a way to push the Americans to come back with something more palatable," he said.

Other commentators see recent criticism by Iraqi politicians as an attempt to establish their nationalist credentials ahead of provincial elections due in October. The elections will be a key test of public support for Maliki's government. (Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari in Tehran, Writing by Ross Colvin in Baghdad; Editing by Dominic Evans) (ross.colvin@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: ross.colvin.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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