June 9 (Reuters) - Iraq is in the midst of negotiations with the United States on agreements to provide the legal basis for U.S. troops to remain in the country after December.
WHAT IS BEING NEGOTIATED?
The United States is negotiating two agreements with Iraq.
One, known as a "status of forces" agreement, would provide a legal basis for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after Dec. 31, when their United Nations mandate expires.
The second, known as a strategic framework agreement, is a broad, long-term agreement on the political, diplomatic, economic and cultural relationship between the two countries.
WHY ARE THE AGREEMENTS NEEDED?
The United Nations mandate authorising the presence of U.S.-led forces in Iraq following the 2003 invasion expires at the end of December.
U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki agreed in November 2007 that the principles guiding the talks would include defending Iraq against threats and encouraging foreign investment to support reconstruction.
The United States set a goal of completing the negotiations by the end of July 2008.
WHO IS CRITICISING THE TALKS?
U.S. and Iraqi officials opened talks on the agreement in March but the negotiations quickly came under fire from various sides, ranging from anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq and Iran to U.S. Congressmen.
Democrats say the agreement on U.S. forces could lock the United States into a long-term military presence in Iraq. Bush's Republican administration says it is a routine measure to govern the legal status of U.S. troops.
Critics say the agreements could bind the hands of the next U.S. president, who will be elected in November. How long U.S. troops remain in Iraq is a key election issue.
Some members of the U.S. Congress have complained that the Bush administration should consult them about the agreement.
Many Iraqis see the agreement as a surrender of Iraq's sovereignty to an occupying force and fear it could pave the way for a permanent U.S. troop presence in the country.
Sadr has called for protests against the negotiations and said protests will continue until the government agrees to a referendum on the U.S. presence. Thousands have responded to his call to protest.
Iran opposes any deal between Baghdad and Washington extending the presence of U.S. troops in its neighbour.
WHAT DOES THE U.S. SAY ABOUT THE TALKS?
U.S. officials say they respect Iraqi sovereignty and that Washington is not trying to force anything on Baghdad.
They say the agreements will be transparent, have no secret provisions and will be submitted to the Iraqi parliament.
U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker says the United States has "status of forces" agreements with around 80 countries, setting out the rights and obligations of U.S. forces operating overseas.
WHAT IS THE IRAQI GOVERNMENT'S POSITION?
The Iraqi government has made clear it does not see eye-to-eye with the Bush administration on the agreements.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told al-Arabiya television this month that U.S. and Iraqi negotiators had different views and were likely to miss the July target.
He said Iraq was looking into possible alternatives if it could not reach agreement with the United States on their long-term relations, but he gave no details.
WHAT ARE THE DETAILED POINTS OF CONTENTION?
The U.S. and Iraq have revealed few details of the talks.
Crocker said last week that it was "flatly untrue" that the United States was seeking permanent bases. He also denied that Washington was seeking to control Iraqi airspace.
Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said last week Baghdad would not grant U.S. troops freedom of movement.
Western diplomats say it is unlikely the Americans would agree to any deal that would require them to seek permission from the Iraqi government for every military operation.
Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told the Washington Post in April that other contentious issues included the right of U.S. forces to imprison Iraqi citizens unilaterally and giving American security contractors immunity from Iraqi law.
U.S. officials say that legal jurisdiction and immunity from prosecution for U.S. soldiers are part of the negotiations on the status of forces agreement with Iraq, as with other countries. Such agreements typically exempt U.S. service members from trial or imprisonment overseas.
Crocker refused to say last week whether the United States is also seeking legal immunity for contractors working in Iraq.
HOW STRONG IS IRAQ'S NEGOTIATING POSITION?
The Iraqi government's room to manoeuvre may be limited by its dependence on U.S. firepower to secure its borders and tackle armed groups that defy its authority.
If it fails to reach agreement with Washington, Iraq could seek a further extension of the U.N. mandate, even though it has said the current extension will be the last.
Reporting by Adrian Croft
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