(Reuters) - Iraq and the United States are negotiating a security deal for U.S. troops to remain once a U.N. mandate expires at the end of 2008.
But talks have dragged on longer than expected, raising some concerns about whether a deal can be in place before the end of the year. Following are key facts about the talks:
The biggest obstacle is immunity for U.S. soldiers in Iraq. U.S. officials have said they want full immunity for American troops but last month Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said “absolute” immunity for any foreigner would be unacceptable.
Iraqi officials have said they would be prepared for legal immunity to apply to U.S. troops while they were on military installations or missions. But if there was evidence of intentional wrongdoing, then jurisdiction should be decided by a committee. Maliki, who has become increasingly assertive with Washington, last Wednesday said immunity was the key blockage.
The deputy speaker of Iraq’s parliament has said lawmakers would likely veto any deal if U.S. troops were given full immunity. Washington wants to protect its soldiers from being tried in Iraqi courts, terms it also requires in many other countries where it has bases.
Maliki on Wednesday said a “critical” situation awaited the United States and Iraq if a deal was not signed by the end of the year. In the event no deal was reached by then, the U.N. mandate would only be extended on Iraq’s terms, he said.
The U.S. embassy says negotiators from Washington will soon return to Baghdad for more talks. The United States had set a goal of completing talks by the end of July.
Even once Baghdad and Washington reach a deal it still must be approved by Iraq’s parliament.
Maliki insists the United States has agreed all American troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011. U.S. officials have declined to confirm details of the pact until it is concluded. But a U.S. official close to the negotiations has previously said the deal would incorporate “goals” for the U.S. transition and that these “might include dates”.
Iraq has said Washington had dropped a demand for immunity from prosecution for private contractors working for the U.S. government. Iraqi officials say planned U.S. military operations will be vetted by joint committees.
The detention of prisoners is complicated, partly because 18,700 detainees are still in U.S. custody in Iraq. Iraq is not expected to have the capacity to take them all immediately.
The United States and Iraqi governments have each said they do not want permanent U.S. bases in Iraq.
The talks drew criticism when they began earlier this year from various sides, including Iran and some U.S. lawmakers.
The future of the U.S. troop presence is a key issue ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November. Democratic candidate Barack Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. combat troops by mid-2010 if elected. Republican candidate John McCain says he believes withdrawals are likely in the coming years, but warns it is dangerous to commit in advance to a firm timetable.
Neighboring Iran opposes any deal extending the presence of U.S. troops, which it sees as a threat to its own security.
The outcome of the talks could also figure as an important issue in upcoming provincial elections in Iraq.
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Writing by Dean Yates, editing by Samia Nakhoul