By Suleiman al-Khalidi
AMMAN, Jan 12 (Reuters) - Iraq hopes to conclude by July a pact with the United States that lays the basis for long-term strategic ties between the two countries and defines the legal status of U.S. troops, Iraq’s foreign minister said on Saturday.
Hoshiyar Zebari said technical talks would be launched in Baghdad later this month on the alliance that lays the basis of ties once the one-year extension of the U.N. authorization for the U.S.-led forces in Iraq expires at the end of 2008.
"We will get by the end of the month into decisive and crucial negotiations to reach the long-term cooperation and friendship agreement. It will define the relationship in all its aspects," Zebari told Reuters in Amman.
"This agreement is very important for Iraq and the region ... We don’t want to pre-empt events and matters will be decided in the coming talks and we hope to conclude by July," he added.
U.S. President George Bush and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki signed a declaration of principles in November to guide negotiations toward the security pact.
Bush said on Saturday that America’s new strategy had reversed Iraq’s descent into mayhem and the United States was on track to complete the withdrawal of 20,000 troops by mid-year.
After talks at a base in the Kuwaiti desert with his military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, Bush said security gains in Iraq "are allowing some U.S. forces to return home".
He added: "Any additional reduction will be based on the recommendation of General Petraeus, and those recommendations will be based entirely on the conditions on the ground in Iraq."
But Bush gave a sense of the long-term U.S. commitment when he said in a television interview on Friday the United States would have a presence in Iraq that could "easily" last a decade.
Zebari said the future role of U.S. troops and their eventual pullout would be covered in the pact. In contrast, the declaration of principles did not clarify how long U.S. forces would remain in the country or what mission they would pursue.
"Iraq is in need of this U.S. presence but the period will be defined in the pact ... This timeframe will be set by the Iraqi government’s authorisation," he added.
"The pact will cover the tasks of U.S. troops in Iraq and their mission in the next phase. There was a lot that was raised in previous years about withdrawal of troops ... this accord can regulate this," Zebari said.
Iraq has said it will never allow the United States to have permanent military bases on its soil, calling the issue a "red line" that cannot be crossed.
The pact would not have any secret annexes and would address the relationship between Iraqi and U.S. army commands and the broader legal and security implications of the immunities currently enjoyed by American troops in Iraq, Zebari said.
Zebari said anticipated troop withdrawals this year was proof Iraq’s military was restoring its vigour and its troops were better prepared to fill the vacuum left by U.S. withdrawals.
A drop in violence in Iraq since a U.S. troop "surge" was launched last year was also due to better security cooperation with Syria and Iran and a campaign by Sunni tribesmen against al-Qaeda militants, Zebari said.
"All of this has brought an improvement in security conditions ... even if there are bombings but the curve is showing a decline in attacks and a decrease in violence by 60-70 percent," he added. (Writing by Suleiman al-Khalidi, editing by Peter Millership)