BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi lawmakers on Wednesday said they were discussing a deal to extend a NATO training mission that could allow U.S. troops to stay as trainers beyond the year-end deadline for withdrawal, with the type of legal protections demanded by Washington.
Negotiations on keeping U.S. troops in Iraq to train its security forces have been complicated by questions over whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government will give U.S. troops immunities from prosecution in the country.
The plans to keep a U.S. military presence eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein have also met strong opposition from anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a key parliamentary ally of Maliki’s coalition.
Lawmakers said parliament was discussing a draft bill that could allow U.S. troops to operate with the NATO mission, allowing them to be under U.S. legal jurisdiction if they commit certain crimes on duty or on bases.
“The option is on the table is that they work under NATO’s agreement,” Sami al-Askari, a senior lawmaker in Maliki’s State of Law coalition, told Reuters.
“Other options put forward are to rely on other countries to get trained, but the most practical option is to rely on NATO because they were already working in Iraq and have the experience needed by Iraqi forces,” he said.
The draft has only had one reading and will get a second reading soon before lawmakers debate and vote on it.
It was not clear whether Washington or other NATO countries would welcome the arrangement.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad had no immediate comment, a spokesman said.
U.S. officials have said they want the same type of legal protections as they have under the current Iraqi security deal.
The NATO bill presented by the Iraqi parliamentary defense and security committee suggests foreign trainers will be prosecuted under their own country’s jurisdiction in the case of certain crimes committed on duty both within or outside agreed bases and areas of operation.
But the Iraqi government would have jurisdiction over the NATO trainers in the case of certain crimes of negligence committed outside the facilities and agreed areas while on duty.
Negotiations over a U.S. troop presence have dragged on for months, and Baghdad and Washington must still decide over how many troops will stay on, how long they will stay, and over the tricky issue of jurisdiction, which would afford American soldiers the kind of legal protections they have elsewhere.
“Sure, Americans will benefit from this agreement 100 percent, the United States is part of the NATO and one its prominent leaders,” Iraqiya lawmaker, Kadhim al-Shimary said.
The NATO draft also proposes the formation of a common committee to rule on crimes of intent and serious negligence crimes. The committee will be formed from military personnel and civilians, grouped under the NATO.
NATO, which has 160 staff on its Iraq training mission, said last month that it will continue in the country until the end of 2013. Its small mission has provided expertise in areas such as logistics and policing to local forces.
Violence in Iraq has declined sharply since the bloody days of sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007 when Shi‘ite and Sunni extremists killed thousands. But bombings, attacks and assassinations still occur daily.
Around 44,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, mostly assisting and advising Iraqi forces after halting combat operations last year.
Iraqi and U.S. officials agree that local armed forces are able to contain the stubborn but weakened insurgency, but they say Iraq needs trainers to help the military fill some of its capability gaps, especially in maritime and air defense.
Reporting by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Patrick Markey