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Omar al-Jabburi, a Sunni lawmaker, told the Arab-language Aswat al-Iraq newspaper that any security deal would inevitably be a bargain between unequal parties.

“Iraq is still a country under occupation and, consequently, any pact arrived at in these difficult circumstances will be deemed to be not agreed to,” he said.

Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, which has ties to the Sunni armed resistance, vowed in a statement this week to fight any bilateral security agreement.

“The nationalist forces will take it upon themselves to reply to those responsible, … and without a doubt there will be a new price to pay in the blood of pious martyrs,” the statement warned.

More worrisome for U.S. negotiators, Iraqi press reports say Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, has privately expressed reservations about the accord and wants a national referendum on any agreement negotiated - a vote that Iraqi government could well lose.

Most of the attention in the United States has focused on the question of permanent bases and troop levels in Iraq, but private analysts say there are other sticking points in the talks. Among them: the legal status and immunity from Iraqi law of tens of thousands of private contractors working with U.S. forces.

Mr. Pachachi said yesterday most Iraqis accept for now the need for U.S. and foreign troops to provide security in the short- and medium-term, blaming the al-Maliki government for failing to rid the Iraqi security forces of influence by sectarian militias.

“Most Iraqis would prefer that there were no foreign troops in the country, but right now we have a situation in which our security forces are not reliable,” he said.