U.S., Iraq to discuss relations

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U.S. and Iraqi negotiators will begin meeting later this month and hope to conclude a strategic compact on long-term economic, political and military cooperation by midsummer, Iraq’s U.S. ambassador said yesterday.

Ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie, briefing a small group of reporters at Iraq’s new Washington embassy, said the proposed agreement would not endorse permanent U.S. military bases in his country or “tie the hands” of future U.S. or Iraqi leaders over the size or the mission of American forces in Iraq.

“Like any agreement, this can be terminated,” Mr. Sumaida’ie said. “But we believe it is very much in our national interest to forge a long-term relationship with the United States and make Iraq an ally of the U.S.”

“We also believe that any future American president would see the benefits to the U.S. national interest of keeping an alliance with Iraq,” he added.

The strategic agreement, building on a “Declaration of Principles” signed in November by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has sparked sharp debate in Congress.

Democratic critics charge the agreement is a bid to lock Mr. Bush’s Iraq policies in place long after he leaves office next year.

“The president is on notice. He cannot do this unilaterally,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said late last month.

The Bush-al-Maliki principles include a pledge to protect Iraq from “internal or external” threats, which opponents say could commit U.S. forces to taking sides in an Iraqi civil war and remaining in the country indefinitely.

Administration officials insist the agreement will not establish permanent U.S. bases in Iraq or set troop levels. It will set the rules and rights for U.S. military and civilian personnel operating in Iraq, which are now covered by a U.N. authorization set to expire at the end of the year.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates described the accord as a way to “normalize” bilateral ties. Administration officials say the agreement will resemble dozens of “status of forces” agreements, known as SOFAs, that the U.S. military has negotiated with countries around the world where American troops operate.

The administration said lawmakers will be consulted on the negotiations but has not promised to submit the final text for congressional approval.

Mr. Sumaida’ie said most Iraqis accept the need for foreign troops to help fight al Qaeda and insurgent forces for now.

“We cannot now suddenly have those forces pull out. It would create a vacuum in security we would be unable to fulfill,” he said.

But he said Iraq would press for much tighter controls and oversight on the activities of private-security contractors, such as Blackwater USA, which have been involved in a number of incidents in which Iraqi civilians have been killed.

“Private-security companies should not be exempt from the discussions,” he said. “We want them to be accountable. Immunity for us is unacceptable and it should be unacceptable to the U.S. side as well.”

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