AMMAN (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Friday talks with the United States on a long-term security pact were at a stalemate because of U.S. demands that encroached on Iraq’s sovereignty.
The United States and Iraq are negotiating a new security deal to provide a legal basis for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after December 31, when their United Nations mandate expires, as well as a separate long-term agreement on political, economic and security ties.
“We have reached a deadlock, because when we started the talks, we found that the U.S. demands hugely infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq, and this we can never accept,” Maliki said, speaking in Arabic to journalists during a visit to Jordan.
U.S. officials have said little on the content of the talks other than that the agreement will have no secret annexes and be open to scrutiny by the Iraqi parliament.
In his first detailed comments on the talks, Maliki said Iraq objected to Washington’s insistence on giving its troops immunity from prosecution in Iraq and freedom to conduct operations independent of Iraqi control.
“We can’t extend the U.S. forces’ permission to arrest Iraqis or to undertake the responsibility of fighting terrorism in an independent way, or to keep Iraqi skies and waters open for themselves whenever they want,” he said.
“One of the important issues that the U.S. is asking for is immunity for its soldiers and those contracting with it. We reject this totally.”
Speaking later to members of the Iraqi community in Amman, Maliki sought to soften his remarks, saying that while there was a deadlock on preliminary drafts of the security agreement, fresh ideas were being put forward by both sides.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told reporters that while the negotiations were difficult, they had made a “great deal of progress” and he was hopeful of reaching an agreement.
“I’m hopeful because Iraq does need this agreement, and it corresponds to its needs,” Zebari told reporters after addressing the U.N. Security Council in New York.
On one of the most sensitive areas of the negotiations — whether security contractors should be given immunity from Iraqi prosecution under the agreement — he said the U.S. side had agreed to remove their immunity.
The United States has similar “status of forces” agreements with 80 countries, with provisions to protect U.S. soldiers from prosecution by a foreign judiciary.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Brussels on the sidelines of a NATO meeting, indicated there might be a difference between public statements about the talks and progress inside the negotiating room.
“I will have to when I get home find out what the status of the negotiations is and whether there’s a difference between what’s actually going on in the negotiations and public posture,” he said.
U.S. President George W. Bush said on Wednesday he was still confident of reaching an agreement with Iraq. U.S. officials say they hope to reach a deal by July, but Iraqi officials have been more cautious and have suggested that date may be missed.
The talks have sparked heated debate both in Iraq and the United States, where Democrat lawmakers fear that any agreement could lock the United States into a long-term military presence in Iraq and bind the hands of the next U.S. president.
The controversy over immunity from prosecution stems partly from an incident in Baghdad in September 2007 in which guards working for U.S. private security firm Blackwater were accused of killing 17 Iraqis. The shooting enraged the Iraqi government.
Some Iraqi politicians, including anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have also criticized the negotiations.
Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, described Maliki’s remarks as “posturing”.
“They may not agree on the terms, but both sides want this agreement ... This may just be a way to push the Americans to come back with something more palatable,” he said.
Additional reporting by Khaled al-Ansary, Adrian Croft and Michael Georgy in Baghdad, Louis Charbonneau in New York and Kristin Roberts in Brussels, Writing by Ross Colvin and Dean Yates in Baghdad; Editing by Caroline Drees