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Rice says Iraqis can't yet defend Iraq alone

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico (Reuters) - Iraqi forces cannot yet defend Iraq by themselves, so Baghdad should accept a pact that would allow U.S. troops to remain, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Wednesday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice takes part in a conversation on leadership, legacy and life at the Women's Conference 2008 in Long Beach, California October 22, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

The United States believes the pact that has been negotiated with Iraq’s government is a good agreement as it stands, Rice told reporters en route to Mexico.

Baghdad has exasperated Washington officials by calling for changes in what the Bush administration considered the “final draft” of the pact.

“Iraq has a strong interest in making sure that the coalition forces, U.S. forces, can remain in Iraq long enough to secure the gains that have been made, and long enough for Iraqi security forces to be able to take up their rightful places defending Iraq,” Rice said.

“But I don’t think that anybody believes that they are capable of doing that alone right now.”

Rice was speaking on her plane to Mexico, where she was to hold talks with Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa.

The United States, which invaded Iraq in March 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government, has 155,000 troops in Iraq operating under a United Nations Security Council mandate that expires on Dec. 31.

Iraq’s cabinet decided on Tuesday to demand amendments to the pact that would allow U.S. forces to stay beyond this year, although Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said Iraq would not seek to renegotiate the “backbone” of the agreement.

So far, Iraqi leaders have been circumspect about what they object to in the draft, which would require U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 and also provides a mechanism for Iraqi courts to try American troops for serious crimes committed off duty.

Rice said the two sides have been discussing legal jurisdiction for U.S. troops accused of serious crimes and the issue of detainees, but did not elaborate.

In Washington, a State Department official who asked not to be named said one consequence of a failure to agree would be that U.S. forces would have to stop providing personal protection to senior Iraqi officials.

“There is still some time here,” Rice said. “The Security Council resolution expires at the end of the year, but I don’t think we want to get to that point. I think we want to try to get this done more quickly than that.”

“I believe these things will get worked out because both sides have a great interest in getting this done,” she said.

Rice sidestepped a question as to whether the existing pact was the final U.S. offer.

“It’s a good agreement and we have done everything we can to make certain both that our troops are protected and Iraqi sovereignty is respected,” she said.