Iraqi prime minister says talks on security deal with U.S. are at an impasse

Posted in Iraq , United States | 14-Jun-08 | Author: Alissa J. Rubin| Source: International Herald Tribune

Demonstrators chanting anti-U.S. slogans during a rally after Friday prayers in Karbala, Iraq, on Friday.

BAGHDAD: Negotiations with the United States for a security agreement governing America's long-term involvement in Iraq are at an impasse because U.S. demands infringe upon Iraqi sovereignty, the Iraqi prime minister said Friday.

The comments were the first by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki in which he explicitly detailed the main points of contention between the United States and the Iraqi government in the negotiations for the security pact.

The new agreement would authorize American forces and operations in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year.

In a meeting with newspaper editors in Jordan, Maliki said the current draft of the agreement, reached during ongoing negotiations, was unacceptable. "The American version of the agreement infringes hugely on the sovereignty of Iraq and this is something that we cannot ever accept," he said.

American officials said their own unofficial translation of Maliki's remarks suggested that he was referring to an initial draft of the security agreement, not the current one, and that the United States had made concessions to address Iraqi concerns about sovereignty.

Many of Maliki's concerns have been expressed publicly over the last several weeks by prominent Shiite politicians in Iraq, some of them from his own Dawa Party. But this is the first time that the prime minister has raised the those points and described the major differences between the two countries.

Maliki said there were four areas in which proposed versions of the agreement failed to give sufficient deference to Iraqi sovereignty.

"Iraq rejects Washington's insistence on granting their forces immunity from Iraqi laws and courts," he said. "We reject Washington's demand to have a free hand in undertaking military operations without cooperation with the Iraqi government."

He added: "We cannot give permission to the American forces independent right to arrest Iraqis or execute operations against terrorism. We cannot allow them to use the Iraqi skies and waters at all times."

The question of immunity for American contractors accused of killing a number of Iraqi civilians without provocation is a particularly sensitive point with Iraqis who want to be able to bring the suspected assailants to trial in Iraqi courts.

Maliki took a somewhat firmer tone Friday than he had in similar comments Thursday after he met with King Abdullah II in Jordan.

Then, Maliki emphasized that the talks with the U.S. negotiators were continuing and that there were many possible ways to proceed.

"There is no agreement yet; there are many drafts, many thoughts," he said in comments to the press that were broadcast on Radio Sawa, an Iraqi network. "But we have different visions."

Although he made it clear at the time that there were deep disagreements between the United States and Iraq, he also said the talks were far from over.

"The important thing is that the conversation between us and the United States is still going on, but there are many disagreements and different visions between us but we continue in our discussions," he said Thursday.

He added that the agreement was "not close" to being signed.

President George W. Bush this week expressed confidence that his administration would reach a new agreement with Iraq. The negotiations face opposition in Congress and, increasingly, in Iraq.

Within Iraq, different political factions hold varying views. Sunnis and Kurds, for instance, are more open to an agreement, while some of the Shiite factions, which are closer to Iran, are more critical. But all groups emphasize the importance of Iraqi sovereignty.

The supreme leader of Iran has also warned Maliki not to ratify an agreement.

During a sermon Friday in Karbala, an aide to the Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged Iraqi negotiators to protect the national interest, The Associated Press reported.

"Iraq's sovereignty and economy must be protected," the aide, Ahmed al-Safi, told worshipers.

Meanwhile, hundreds of followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr - long an opponent of American involvement in Iraq - also rallied in Karbala in protest against the agreement.

Sadr to reorganize his militia

Sadr unveiled plans Friday to reorganize his Mahdi army militia by dividing it into a group of experienced members who would be exclusively authorized to fight and others who would focus on propaganda - an apparent bid to exert more control over his followers, The Associated Press reported from Baghdad.

"Arms will be in the hands of members of this group exclusively and the arms will be directed only at the occupier. Any other targeting will be banned," Sadr said in a statement that was read after Friday prayers in Kufa.

The cleric, who is believed to be in Iran, said that the militia would continue to resist U.S.-led forces in Iraq but that fighting should be limited to the select group.

He said others "will mentally and ideologically fight the Western and secular thoughts" but "will be prevented from carrying or using arms."

Those who "violate this decision" will be disowned, he added, calling on the fighters to "avoid misdeeds" and "be moderate" to protect the movement's reputation among the public.

Continued fighting despite several cease-fires called by Sadr has raised questions about how much authority the cleric maintains over various militia factions.

An official in Sadr's main office in Najaf said that no new groups would be formed but that the fighting would only be undertaken by those who had experience from previous battles. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make the information public.