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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."

He said Iraq is prepared to return to the United Nations for a new security mandate if the bilateral deal with the United States is not completed in time.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack yesterday said the legal status of private contractors will almost certainly be a major topic in the talks.

"We want to arrive at a place where both sides are comfortable in that everybody operating in Iraq follows the laws, is accountable under the law, and is able to operate in such a way that we're able to do our jobs," Mr. McCormack said.

The Iraqi envoy also said his country has made progress on the domestic political front to match the much-touted security gains from the U.S. military surge, but he acknowledged that key parts of the reconciliation program remain stalled.

"There's a general impression that progress on the security front has not been matched politically," he said. "That impression at the very least is exaggerated."

Mr. Sumaida'ie cited the Iraqi parliament's recent approval of a law easing sanctions on lower-level members of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party as well as new links being established between Sunni and Shi'ite security forces fighting al Qaeda inside Iraq.

However, Iraq has failed to make progress on another issue seen as critical to national unity — an oil law that would divide the country's vast energy wealth among its competing communities.

The oil law is "still in the pipeline," Mr. Sumaida'ie conceded. "It is still a work in progress."

The debate has stretched on for months in Iraq's parliament, and negotiators from the central government of Mr. al-Maliki and the Kurdish regional government recently failed to strike a deal in yet another round of talks.

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