Iraq may sign handover deal by next week

news2.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) — The United States and Iraq hope to sign an agreement by next week to hand operational command of Iraq’s new army to Prime Minister Nuri Maliki, Iraq said on Monday, after wrangles on wording had held up the accord.

A day after the government hailed the arrest of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s purported deputy head as a coup against insurgents, the bodies of 33 men, some with their hands bound and bearing signs of torture, were found in Baghdad, and foreign forces announced the death of four Americans and two British soldiers.

South of the capital, the US-trained Iraqi army said it killed 14 suspected insurgents who had been plotting to attack Shiite pilgrims, a popular tactic by Sunni militants whom US and Iraqi officials accuse of spreading sectarian civil war.

A player for one of Iraq’s biggest soccer clubs was kidnapped by gunmen in Baghdad just days before he was due to sign a transfer to a Syrian club, an Iraqi official said.

Transferring security from US forces to the Iraqi army it is training is key to Washington’s plans to withdraw its 140,000 troops. A handover ceremony set for Saturday was delayed over disagreements between Baghdad and Washington over the wording of a document outlining their armies’ new relationship.

Denying there had ever been serious disagreement, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh told Reuters: “Both sides have agreed on the main issues. I think the document is ready to be signed, probably by the end of this week or early next week.” He said all remaining disagreements were “technicalities”.

The agreement, which the US military says is a key step towards Iraq taking responsibility for its security, lays out a gradual transfer of command from US forces to Iraqi units.

Under the timetable, every two weeks command of Iraqi units meeting certain criteria would be transferred until, by April 1, Iraqi troops in even the Sunni insurgent strongholds of Ramadi and Fallujah would no longer be under US command, Dabbagh said.

In parallel with this, control of security is being handed over province by province to Iraqi leaders, a process Dabbagh said would largely be complete this year, requiring US forces then to receive approval for any movements across the country.

Defence ministry spokesman Mohammed Askari said Iraqi government lawyers had recommended that some articles of the document, drafted by US-led forces, be rewritten.

“It is a very important document because it deals with the whole handover of sovereignty,” Askari told reporters.

US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson called the disagreements “legalistic”.

With US forces in Iraq dying almost daily and the threat of a sectarian civil war looming, the US military is anxious for Iraq’s new army to take over security.

Although mindful of his dependency on US military power, Maliki is keen to be seen winning independence from Washington.

A government source told Reuters the Shiite prime minister was pushing for guarantees that his forces would have freedom to make decisions independently.

Mass graves

As Iraqi and US officials worked on the final draft of a document that spells out their military relationship in the future, Iraq’s past reverberated again with the discovery of two mass graves in the north containing 80 people believed to be Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein’s anti-Kurdish campaign.

Tens of thousands of Kurds were killed in the 1998 Anfal onslaught for which Saddam and six others are now on trial.

A row between ethnic Kurds and the central government that had provoked threats of Kurdish secession in the north appeared to have been defused on Monday after Maliki, a Shiite Arab, said Iraq may get a new flag when parliament meets on Tuesday.

Rejecting Iraq’s national flag as a symbol of Saddam’s oppression, the Kurdish regional leader last week banned it from flying in public building, sparking a stern rebuke by Maliki.

Dabbagh said designing a new flag and anthem was now a priority.

Along with the Shiite-Sunni sectarian divide that a recent Pentagon report said could spark a civil war, friction between Kurds and Arabs is seen as a major threat to Iraq’s unity.

An Iraqi Al Qaeda-led group questioned the alleged rank of Juma Faris Suaidi, whom Iraq’s national security adviser called the deputy of Abu Ayyub Masri, who took over the group after US forces killed Abu Mussab Zarqawi in June.

In an Internet statement, the Mujahedeen Shura Council said: “We bring good tidings to our brethren that all our leaders are well, praise God, leading the ranks.” 

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