BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Legal protection for U.S. troops in Iraq is the most difficult issue still to be settled in U.S.-Iraqi talks on a new security pact, a senior Iraqi official said on Wednesday.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told Reuters in an interview that Baghdad was awaiting a response from the United States on a number of questions and proposals Iraq had put forward regarding immunity and some other outstanding issues.
"(Immunity) is probably the most contentious issue," Salih said. "There is a history to it. It is very sensitive."
There have been a number of high-profile incidents involving American soldiers killing or abusing Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraqis were horrified by photos in 2004 of U.S. soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison.
In 2005, U.S. Marines were accused of killing 24 civilians in Haditha, west of Baghdad. Most Marines charged in a U.S. military court have had their cases dismissed or been acquitted.
Iraqi officials say such incidents have colored bilateral talks aimed at striking a deal to govern the U.S. troop presence here after a U.N. mandate expires at the year's end.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed that no foreigners will receive "absolute" immunity, and said last month that "the sanctity of Iraqi blood must be respected."
Washington has been keen to shield its soldiers from being tried in Iraqi courts. Under similar deals with some countries, it shares legal jurisdiction over its soldiers.
Nevertheless, Salih said negotiations had entered their "final stages."
Remarkably, officials on both sides appear to have found agreement on what was once seen as the crux of the talks -- a timeframe to end the U.S. troop presence here.
Maliki last month announced that both sides had agreed U.S. troops would leave by the end of 2011.
U.S. officials decline to confirm any details of the agreement until it is concluded.
But such a step would be a significant turnaround for the Bush administration, which has long insisted that setting a timeline for withdrawal would be tantamount to defeat.
US PREPARES TO DRAW DOWN
Maliki, emboldened by the sharp drop in violence over the past year and his success in battling Shi'ite militias, has been more assertive in demanding guarantees about reducing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
He has also said the security deal would require U.S. military operations to have joint U.S.-Iraqi approval.
"The Iraqi military command is very confident that by the end of 2011 we will have sufficient troops and forces that will enable it to take charge of domestic security," Salih said.
The talks approach a conclusion as Americans prepare to choose a new president in a November election in which Iraq will be a central issue.
It also coincides with the announcement this week that President George W. Bush will remove 8,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by February, leaving 138,000 soldiers.
Bush has praised the growing abilities of Iraq's security forces, who number near 600,000, in going after insurgents.
Yet more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraqis are divided about how long the United States should stay.
"We still cannot do it alone. The fact remains that for some time we will need the support of the United States," Salih said.
He said U.S. and Iraqi officials had reached agreement that private contractors working in Iraq would not receive legal immunity under the new deal.
Heavily armed security contractors are a common sight in Baghdad, barreling though intersections in shiny SUVs as they ferry around government or private sector clients.
Most security companies have muted their presence, though, following widespread outrage after guards for U.S.-based Blackwater killed 17 people in Baghdad a year ago.
(Editing by Keith Weir)