Iraq must decide on US military pact: Zebari

Posted in United States , Iraq | 21-Oct-08 | Source: Gulf in the Media

Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa (L) gestures as he speaks during a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshiyar Zebari in Baghdad October 18, 2008.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on Saturday it was time for the leaders of Iraq and the United States to make up their minds on a draft agreement on the future of US troops in the country.

"It is time to take decisions. It is difficult to reopen the text," Zebari said at a media briefing with visiting Bahrain foreign minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, referring to the months-long negotiations for an accord.

Zebari said parliament had now either to ratify or reject the draft accord.

"There is no hidden agenda. There is no permanent military presence. It is only for three years. The next days are very crucial for Iraqi leaders to decide," Zebari said.

The agreement would replace a UN mandate which is the legal basis for the US military presence in Iraq, and also set in motion a timeline for the withdrawal of US combat forces by the end of 2011.

In terms of immunity US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has consulted with US lawmakers on the text of the draft agreement, believes the draft agreement "adequately" protects US troops in all facets of their operations, from combat to legal protections.

"We would never advocate for a document for a ... status of forces agreement that did not adequately protect our forces," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.

The text of the agreement, portions of which were published in the American press Saturday, reportedly states that Iraq would have the "primary right to exercise judicial jurisdiction" over "premeditated and gross felonies ... committed outside the agreed facilities and areas and when not on a mission."

Democrat lawmakers expressed concern about ceding authority over US troops to the Iraqi government.

"I am very concerned about reports that US service personnel may not have full immunity under Iraqi law," said House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, the Washington Post reported.

According to the newspaper, the accord prohibits US troops from detaining an Iraqi citizen without an Iraqi warrant, and requires the United States to hand over custody of detainees to the Iraqi government within 24 hours of their arre

All Iraqis in US custody must be handed over to the Iraqi government by January 1, 2009, when the agreement would become law, the Post reported.

Negotiators have concluded work on the draft text of the agreement, but it has still to be passed by leaders of both countries, as well as by the Iraqi parliament.

The key point of contention in the months-long negotiations, of whether US troops and contractors would fall exclusively under US jurisdiction if accused of serious crimes, will be hotly debated in the months leading up to a final agreement.

Foreign Minister Zebari said on Friday that disagreements would be resolved by a bilateral committee.

"If the crime is very grave or serious, the US may waive its jurisdiction," the Post quoted Zebari as saying.

Gates said at a Pentagon press briefing that top US military officials "are all satisfied that our men and women in uniform serving in Iraq are well protected."

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of angry Shiites demonstrated on the streets of Baghdad Saturday, as radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged Iraqi lawmakers to reject the deal.