BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said U.S. troops might still be able to stay in Iraq as trainers beyond a 2011 withdrawal date, even though the country’s political blocs have rejected giving immunity to any American soldiers.
Maliki last week won backing from Iraq’s leaders for U.S. troops to stay on for training, but without the legal immunity demanded by Washington as part of an accord for an American military role in Iraq more than eight years after the invasion.
Maliki told Reuters U.S. troops could be attached to the existing U.S. embassy training mission, or join a broader NATO training group, rather than seek a bilateral deal requiring U.S. immunity that would fail to pass Iraq’s parliament.
“Since the need for training exists and all the political blocs acknowledge that, we have a number of choices. Now there is a dialogue between us and the Americans,” Maliki said in an interview at his presidential residence in Baghdad.
“We are heading toward securing trainers and experts for the American weapons we purchased, but without immunity and without going to parliament.”
Washington had said no training deal could go ahead without U.S. troops receiving similar legal protections they have under the current agreement, which essentially keeps troops under U.S. jurisdiction for certain crimes committed on duty or on base.
It was unclear whether alternatives proposed by Maliki would be acceptable to Washington as U.S. officials have said any training in the field that puts U.S. troops at risk of attack would require the type of protections approved in parliament.
“You could say withdrawal and immunity might be seen negatively, but we and the Americans understand this positively, we understand our two countries cooperate closely,” Maliki said.
After ending combat operations last year, the last 44,000 U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of the year, handing over bases to Iraqi forces when a security pact expires.
Violence has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian bloodletting in 2006-2007 when Shi’ite-Sunni attacks killed thousands. But Islamist insurgents linked to al-Qaeda and radical Shi’ite militias still carry out attacks.
Legal immunity is a sensitive issue in Iraq, where many still have memories of abuses committed by U.S. troops and contractors during the worst of the violence.
Maliki said discussions were still under way on how many American troops Iraq might need, but he said Iraq expects that the number of U.S. soldiers required would be less than the initial American request for around 3,000 soldiers.
He said he expected talks over the troop trainers should be concluded by mid-November.
“The last number proposed by the Americans... was 3,400. We do not need such a large number,” he said.
“We are negotiating on this matter, but as I have said, the most serious part of negotiations is over (legal) cover.”
The question of whether U.S. troops stay on in Iraq has also tested Maliki’s fragile power-sharing coalition among Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs in a country where sectarian tensions simmer not far below the surface.
Anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who is a key part of Maliki’s alliance, opposes any American military presence, and that could complicate any attempt to get a deal with immunity through the Iraqi parliament.
The U.S. embassy already has military trainers attached to its Office for Security Cooperation in Iraq, where uniformed military, as attaches, could come under diplomatic protection of the U.S. State Department.
NATO, which now has only 160 staff in Iraq, has a small training mission that will stay through 2013 providing expertise in logistics and policing.
Iraqi lawmakers are discussing an extension of the NATO mission which would allow trainers in many cases to come under their own country’s legal jurisdiction for certain crimes.
Iraqi and U.S. officials say while local armed forces can contain the insurgency, they need training in air and maritime defense, intelligence gathering, logistics and shifting from counter-terrorism to conventional warfare tactics.
Iraq will also already receive civilian trainers as part of as package of U.S. weapons it is buying, including F-16 fighter jets, naval patrol boats, Abrams tanks and artillery pieces.
Iraq has already made an initial down payment on the first deliveries of 18 F-16 warplanes made by Lockheed Martin to bolster its weak air defences. Maliki said earlier this year that Iraq plans to buy a total of 36 of the fighters.
Maliki said Iraq is also considering purchasing some of the radar systems operated by U.S. forces in Iraq, as a way to efficiently bolster its air defences. He said Iraq was also buying aircraft from France, Russia and other countries.
“We are not planning to build an army of aggression or intervention, but a defensive army,” Maliki said.
Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alistair Lyon