- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

U.S. Ambassador to IraqRyan Crocker on Thursday rejected as “flatly untrue” reports that the Bush administration is demanding long-term bases in Iraq or control of the country’s airspace in talks with the Iraqi government over the future status of American troops in the country.

Mr. Crocker, in Washington this week for consultations at the State Department and the White House, told reporters that both the troop agreement and a separate accord defining the U.S.-Iraq strategic alliance would be published in full and subject to approval by Iraq’s parliament.

“This will be a serious negotiation and there aren’t going to be any efforts to play around with words on this,” said Mr. Crocker, the chief U.S. point man in the closed-door talks in Baghdad.

“I’m very comfortable saying to you, to the Iraqis, to anyone who asks, that no, indeed, we are not seeking permanent bases, either explicitly or implicitly, by just intending to stay there indefinitely,” he said.

The two sides are discussing a “status-of-forces” agreement outlining the mandate for the more than 150,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. The U.N. resolution authorizing the U.S.-led international force in Iraq expires at the end of the year.

In addition, the two sides are discussing a much broader long-term strategic alliance - covering political, diplomatic, economic and cultural ties - based on an agreement struck by President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last fall.

But the talks have become increasingly controversial in Iraq, with a number of leading Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim politicians denouncing the pact in recent days.

Followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have staged large street demonstrations against any agreement. Adnan Pachachi, a senior Sunni politician in the Iraqi parliament, said on a Washington visit last week that it was “unlikely” lawmakers could ratify any deal before the U.N. mandate expires.

The future of U.S. military bases in Iraq is just one contentious point. Others include the scope of U.S. military operations inside Iraq and the legal status of thousands of private contractors supporting American military, diplomatic and reconstruction efforts.

The Arab-language newspaper Al-Hayat earlier this week reported that Iraqi demands in the talks include prior approval by Baghdad of U.S. operations inside the country; strict limits on U.S. troop movements outside of bases; and an annual review and approval by Baghdad of U.S. bases.

Mr. Crocker acknowledged Thursday there was a “lot of debate” inside Iraq, saying the discussions were a sign of the health of the country’s young democracy.

He denied a report in the London Independent newspaper Wednesday that the Bush administration was insisting on long-term control of Iraq’s airspace, calling the story an “injuring myth.”

He said the issue of immunity for U.S. troops and contractors is still being discussed between the two sides, noting the United States has similar bilateral force agreements with some 80 countries where U.S. troops operate.

“We expect to approach the jurisdiction issue here just as we have in those other cases,” he said.

The ambassador sidestepped questions on how the U.S. presidential campaign could play into the troops talks. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq immediately if elected, and some Democratic lawmakers have complained the Baghdad accords are intended to tie the hands of future administrations.

“I’ve got my focus on the Iraqi environment,” Mr. Crocker said. “I’m not really keyed to the American political calendar.”

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