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U.S. says troops will not face trial over Iraq raid

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. soldiers will not appear in Iraqi courts to answer any charges relating to a raid this week that killed two people in Iraq and triggered condemnation from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the U.S. military has said.

In a video-conference interview with Reuters TV Washington late on Thursday, Brigadier-General Peter Bayer, chief of staff for the U.S. military’s day to day operations in Iraq, said the raid in the southern city of Kut was “lawful and legal.”

Responding to a question whether American soldiers would appear in Iraqi courts, he replied: “No. Absolutely not.”

“(The raid) was a sanctioned and authorized combat operation in accordance with ... the security agreement. The target of the raid was a named subject in an arrest warrant issued by an Iraqi judge. And the raid was coordinated with the Iraqi government.”

Under the U.S.-Iraqi security pact that came into force this year, the 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq can no longer conduct military operations without Iraqi approval.

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The fallout from the operation early on Sunday, which Maliki labeled a “crime,” poses the first major test to the pact, which allows U.S. troops to stay in Iraq until the end of 2011. The prime minister said they violated it.

Maliki, an increasingly assertive leader as his popularity grows at home and U.S. influence in Iraq diminishes, also said those responsible for the raid should be sent to court -- the first such demand since the pact took effect in January.

The agreement says U.S. soldiers are immune from prosecution in Iraqi courts unless they are suspected of grave crimes committed while off duty outside their bases. In all other cases, suspected crimes would be tried by U.S. military justice.

“Unfortunately ... it was a combat operation, and two people were killed but it was a lawful and legal operation, conducted in the spirit of the security agreement,” Bayer said.

The Iraqi government has asked General Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, for an official apology for the raid.

Reporting by Deborah Lutterbeck; writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Philippa Fletcher

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