June 13, 2008 / 9:47 PM / 11 years ago

INTERVIEW-Iraqi minister says talks with U.S. not dead

By Patrick Worsnip

UNITED NATIONS, June 13 (Reuters) - Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Friday it was too soon to say that struggling talks with the United States on a long-term security pact were dead and Baghdad was committed to concluding it.

The United States and Iraq are negotiating a new deal on 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.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said earlier in Jordan the talks were deadlocked.

But in an interview with Reuters, Zebari said that despite difficulties over "very delicate legal, technical issues ... as far as I know, the prime minister and the government are committed to continue these talks to reach a final agreement."

"I think it’s too early really to judge this agreement that it is dead or there is no way out," he said after attending a U.N. Security Council meeting on Iraq.

The minister identified the main problems as authorization for U.S. operations against insurgents in Iraq, legal immunity sought by Washington for U.S. contractors in the country and issues relating to entry into and exit from Iraq.

Zebari said Iraq had put up counter-proposals on all the issues and had sent its negotiators to Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Germany to examine agreements those countries have with the United States on the American troops they host.

The Baghdad government is sensitive to criticism at home that its sovereignty could be restricted by such a deal.

He said one problem with the end of the U.N. mandate would be that Iraq would no longer be immune to potential lawsuits from people claiming to have been harmed by the government of Saddam Hussein, ousted by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

IMMUNITIES

At present Iraq is subject to so-called U.N. Chapter 7 status, which deprives the nation of its full rights but also grants it some immunities. Iraq wants the Security Council to remove it from Chapter 7 at the end of December.

Zebari said debate continued over whether to keep just its financial assets under Chapter 7. "We haven’t made a final decision," he said. "We are exploring all these options."

He described as inaccurate a published report that the United States is holding hostage some $50 billion of Iraqi money in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to pressure Baghdad into accepting U.S. terms on the strategic pact.

"It’s not a question that the U.S. is holding (on) to this amount of money," he said. "In fact, to the contrary, the Americans informed us that ‘as far as your assets are in the United States, we can assure you (that) you can be protected by us’."

Turning to a visit Maliki made to Iran last week, Zebari said the prime minister had given Tehran a "clear and direct message" that it should match its verbal support for the political process in Iraq with "deeds and actions".

He said the Iraqi message had been that "we come here as a friendly government to you. We anticipate (that you will) support our effort to stabilize the situation, not undermine us or embarrass us’."

Zebari did not elaborate and declined to say if he agreed with comments by Washington’s U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to the Security Council that Iran was training, equipping and financing "violent Iraqi elements".

Iran blames the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, currently numbering about 150,000, for the bloodshed that followed the 2003 invasion.




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