Analysis: Iraq U.S. troop deal drifts over immunity

Sun Oct 16, 2011 10:00am EDT
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By Patrick Markey

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Just weeks before U.S. troops plan to leave Iraq, the country's political elite and Washington are at odds over whether American soldiers stay as trainers: Baghdad rejects any legal immunity for U.S. soldiers and Washington says that means no deal.

Without a shift in Iraq's position, any accord will likely now fall somewhere in between as Iraq's political stalemate, U.S. domestic opposition to the war and a lack of time force a deal that leaves a just few hundred American soldiers in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki last week said U.S. troops could stay on as part of the small NATO mission or as part of an already existing U.S. embassy military training program which would give American troops legal protections.

The country's political leadership gave Maliki the green light to negotiate, but without immunity -- a sensitive matter that would have required tricky horse-trading within his fragile cross-sectarian government and possible defeat in parliament.

But Washington sounds skittish on the options, insisting U.S. troops would need full protections or at least assurances that whatever Iraq offers would bring the same legal cover.

"I can't see the United States agreeing to blanket Iraqi jurisdiction," said Stephen Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If it is more than just brinkmanship and if they are going to insist on this, then I think the United States will decline to stay at all."

More than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, around 41,000 troops are in Iraq mostly advising Iraqi forces since ending combat operations last year.

While violence has fallen since the sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007, Iraq still suffers daily attacks from a stubborn insurgency allied with al Qaeda and from Shi'ite militia.   Continued...