WASHINGTON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Iraq would seek an extension of the U.N. mandate authorizing U.S.-led forces on its soil if it cannot reach a bilateral deal with the United States by the end of the year, an Iraqi official said on Tuesday.
However, Iraqi ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaida’ie said he hopes Washington and Baghdad can wrap up talks on their long-term strategic relationship by July, obviating the need to extend the U.N. mandate.
The United States now has 158,000 troops in Iraq, formally operating under the authority of a U.N. Security Council resolution enacted after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The U.N. Security Council voted on Dec. 18 to extend the mandate for one year. At the time, the Iraqi government said this would be the last extension after which it would address the presence of foreign forces through bilateral agreements.
The United States and Iraqi officials plan to begin talks on an agreement charting their long-term strategic relationship, including political, economic and security matters, by the end of this month.
Asked if Iraq would consider an extension if such a deal were not in place when the U.N. mandate expires, Sumaida’ie said: "If we cannot have an agreement by that time, we would have no choice but to go back to the Security Council.
"Basically, we need to have some legal cover for foreign forces," he added.