Zebari Reiterates Iraq’s Final Say on US Military Pact

A00268863.jpgTEHRAN (FNA)- Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said on Saturday it was time for the leaders of Iraq and the United States to make up their minds on a draft agreement on the future of US troops in the country.

“It is time to take decisions. It is difficult to reopen the text,” Zebari said at a media briefing with visiting Bahrain foreign minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, referring to the months-long negotiations for an accord.

The US is in talks with Iraqi officials to get them to sign a provocative security agreement which secures long-term US presence in Iraq.

If ratified by the Iraqi government, the Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) would also grant US forces in Iraq immunity from prosecution.

It also gives the occupation forces a free rein to stage military operations wherever and whenever they deem necessary, without consulting the Iraqi government.

Zebari said parliament had now either to ratify or reject the draft accord.

“There is no hidden agenda. The next days are very crucial for Iraqi leaders to decide,” Zebari said.

The proposed pact is also facing widespread opposition among Iraqi politicians.

Many fear Washington has plans to keep permanent bases, despite a denial of any such plan written into the proposal. Iraqis say the drafts submitted by the Americans thus far would infringe on Iraq’s sovereignty by giving US forces too much freedom to operate.

The security pact also faces strong criticism from members of al-Maliki’s own coalition. Two Iraqi officials familiar with the negotiations have warned that a deal is unlikely to be reached before the end of President Bush’s term in January unless Washington backs off some demands seen as giving American forces too much freedom to operate in Iraq and infringing on Iraqi sovereignty.

Iraq’s parliament must approve the deal, and the two officials said opposition in the legislature was so widespread that it stood no chance of winning approval without significant changes in the US position.

The agreement would set in motion a timeline for the withdrawal of US combat forces by the end of 2011.

In terms of immunity US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has consulted with US lawmakers on the text of the draft agreement, believes the draft agreement “adequately” protects US troops in all facets of their operations, from combat to legal protections.

“We would never advocate for a document for a … status of forces agreement that did not adequately protect our forces,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.

The text of the agreement, portions of which were published in the American press Saturday, reportedly states that Iraq would have the “primary right to exercise judicial jurisdiction” over “premeditated and gross felonies … committed outside the agreed facilities and areas and when not on a mission.”

Democrat lawmakers expressed concern about ceding authority over US troops to the Iraqi government.

“I am very concerned about reports that US service personnel may not have full immunity under Iraqi law,” said House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, the Washington Post reported.

According to the newspaper, the accord prohibits US troops from detaining an Iraqi citizen without an Iraqi warrant, and requires the United States to hand over custody of detainees to the Iraqi government within 24 hours of their arrest.

All Iraqis in US custody must be handed over to the Iraqi government by January 1, 2009, when the agreement would become law, the Post reported.

Negotiators have concluded work on the draft text of the agreement, but it has still to be passed by leaders of both countries, as well as by the Iraqi parliament.

The key point of contention in the months-long negotiations, of whether US troops and contractors would fall exclusively under US jurisdiction if accused of serious crimes, will be hotly debated in the months leading up to a final agreement.

Foreign Minister Zebari said on Friday that disagreements would be resolved by a bilateral committee.

“If the crime is very grave or serious, the US may waive its jurisdiction,” the Post quoted Zebari as saying.

Gates said at a Pentagon press briefing that top US military officials “are all satisfied that our men and women in uniform serving in Iraq are well protected.”

Meanwhile, around a million Iraqis staged massive rallies in Baghdad on Saturday to protest the controversial security pact as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged Iraqi lawmakers to reject the deal.

Iraqi lawmaker Mohammed Kamid al-Humedawi said in an interview with Iranian media in October that the United States was using the country’s debts as leverage to force Baghdad into signing the Status of Forces Agreement.

“Baghdad is under pressure by Washington to accept the security deal in exchange for clearing all of Iraq’s debts,” said al-Humedawi.

This is while the Iraqi web site al-Morsad reported on Oct. 10 that US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte had threatened to oust the Iraqi Premier Nouri al-Maliki unless he signed the controversial deal.

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