BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq said on Friday it would not grant U.S. troops freedom of movement for military operations in a new agreement being negotiated on extending the presence of American troops on its soil.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said the United States wanted its forces to operate with no restrictions, but this was not acceptable to Iraq.
The United States is negotiating an agreement with Iraq aimed at giving a legal basis for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after December 31, when their United Nations mandate expires.
The negotiations are the subject of heated debate both in the United States and Iraq, where thousands have answered anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s call for weekly protests after Friday Muslim prayers.
While the Iraqi government has confirmed there are major differences between the two sides in the negotiations, few details of the sticking points have been made public.
“What I can confirm now, with no hesitation, is that there will not be freedom of movement for American (forces) in Iraq,” Salih told Arabiya television.
U.S. officials said this week they would not comment on the content of the negotiations.
But 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.
“If we reach an agreement ... any American military movements should be in the framework of Iraqi approval and decisions and through consultations with the Iraqi side,” Salih said.
The “status of forces” agreement is similar to pacts the United States has with many other countries, setting out rules for U.S. military activity.
The talks have angered many Iraqis who suspect the United States of wanting to keep a permanent presence in Iraq.
But U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker on Thursday rejected such suggestions as “flatly untrue”.
Salih said the United States had asked Baghdad to maintain the U.S. military’s current status, which does not require a green light from the Iraqi government for military operations.
“The U.S. side asked to extend the existing status and the Iraqi side didn’t see any use of that,” he said.
The Iraqi government’s room to manoeuvre may be limited, however, by its dependence on U.S. firepower to secure its borders and tackle armed groups that defy its authority.
While U.S. officials say the Iraqi army’s capabilities have improved in recent months, it is still dependent on the U.S. military for logistical and aerial support. Iraqi security forces control only half of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
Thousands of Iraqis protested in Baghdad’s Sadr City, Sadr’s main stronghold, and the southern holy Shi’ite cities of Kerbala and Najaf on Friday against the negotiations. Some protesters carried placards rejecting “permanent occupation”.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are also negotiating a strategic framework agreement that defines long-term bilateral ties.
In Washington, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators complained to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates over what they said was a lack of consultation over the long-term agreement with Iraq.
In a letter to Rice and Gates, the four senators said Iraq had proposed “significant changes” to the agreements and the Bush administration had not followed through on its commitment to consult with Congress about these changes.
The letter was signed by senior members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and John Kerry of Massachusetts as well as Republican Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
Additional reporting by Khaled Farhan in Najaf, Mohammed Amin in Baghdad and Sue Pleming in Washington; editing by Ross Colvin and Andrew Roche