US-Iraqi talks on forces agreement pressured from all sides

The Bush administration hopes to work out an agreement soon with the Iraqi government that could establish the legal grounds for US forces to remain, amid worries that a potential deal could fuel Iraqi anger.

President George W Bush has sought to complete the deal by the end of July, ahead of the expiration at the end of 2008 of the UN mandate for US troops in Iraq.

The two countries have been in contentious discussions about the terms of the so-called status of forces agreement (SOFA). The United States has the similar deals with dozens of countries that host US forces, including Germany, Japan and South Korea.

But critics of the Bush administration efforts say that Iraq is different. They're concerned that the militant groups opposed to the US "occupation" will view a SOFA as an opening for a long-term - or even permanent - US presence.

The Bush administration is seeking broad powers that would allow military operations without first informing the Iraqi government, plus the right to detain Iraqi citizens, legal immunity for US soldiers suspected of a crime and control of Iraqi airspace.

They are also working on a second, strategic framework agreement that would define the long-term economic, political and defence relationship between Washington and Baghdad.

Steven Simon, an expert on US policy in the Middle East at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, believes an agreement giving the US military such wide latitude could intensify resentments in Iraq, recalling the country's post-British colonial years.

Then, the Iraqi government signed a security arrangement with Britain that left a large number of foreign forces in the country. The deal left Iraqis inflamed, fuelling the movement that ousted the former monarchy.

"The way in which the United States has gone about pursuing an agreement has reminded Iraqis ... of their experience with the British," Simon said.

Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite preacher who wields significant influence and commands a sizeable militia, has warned against the SOFA. Al-Sadr's order last year for his militias to stand down has contributed to the sharp drop in violence. But he has vowed to fight US forces if they are granted permission for a long-term stay.

Bush administration officials say the SOFA will not establish permanent US bases in Iraq or impact the country's sovereignty. They argue that a UN mandate is no longer appropriate because Iraq now has a democratically elected, independent government.

"The Iraqis understand that we have certain requirements, but we do want to be respectful of and responsive to their sovereignty concerns," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN earlier this month.

The negotiations have dragged on for months and have been held up by disagreements over Washington's insistence that US forces be able to operate freely, without advance discussions with Iraqi officials, and a demand to be able to detain Iraqi citizens.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has also rejected granting legal immunity to US soldiers and private military contractors. Washington has reportedly dropped the request for the contractors. Al-Maliki earlier this month declared that the negotiations had reached a dead end.

But some differences appear to have since been bridged. Bush and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, during a meeting Wednesday, stated that the talks were making progress and expressed confidence that an agreement could be reached.

"I think we have (had) very good, important steps toward reaching to finalize this agreement," Talabani said. "And we continue our struggle to our efforts to reach, ... very soon, this agreement."

The Bush administration will likely face some opposition to the deal at home, too.

The opposition-controlled US Congress has insisted that it must approve any security arrangement with Iraq. The White House claims executive authority to complete the deal and has reportedly modified the wording so it does not appear to be a treaty, because the US Senate must approve any treat, dpa reported.

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