BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq wants to amend a draft security pact with the United States to ban U.S. forces from striking neighboring countries from Iraqi territory, a government spokesman said on Wednesday.
Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraq also wanted to change the wording covering the possible prosecution of U.S. soldiers in Iraqi courts, a sensitive issue for Washington.
U.S. negotiators began on Wednesday to scrutinize the changes demanded by Iraq to the security pact, which sets the conditions for U.S. troops to operate in the country after their United Nations mandate expires in December.
U.S. President George W. Bush said he was still “hopeful and confident” a security deal could be agreed.
“We’re analyzing those amendments, we obviously want to be helpful and constructive without undermining basic principles,” Bush said after meeting the leader of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani, at the White House.
The issue of cross-border attacks flared after Syrian officials said U.S. troops landed by helicopter on Sunday and killed eight civilians in a village. Washington says it targeted a smuggler of foreign fighters into Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government, after saying the raid was on an area used by militants to launch attacks, on Tuesday denounced the U.S. operation and said Iraq must not be used to stage attacks on other nations.
State Department and Pentagon officials repeated the stated U.S. view that the current draft agreement respects Iraqi sovereignty while protecting U.S. troops.
A senior State Department official suggested the negotiations could drag on for some time.
“Everybody knows what (the) endgames of negotiations look like. I couldn’t even tell you if this is the endgame yet,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
Both sides are working hard to reach an agreement before the existing U.N. mandate for the roughly 150,000 U.S. troops expires at the end of the year, said Brig.-Gen. David Perkins, a U.S. military spokesman in Iraq.
“Nobody wants to turn the clock back. Nobody wants to lose the security that has been hard fought and gained,” he said.
Iraq irked Washington by announcing last week it wanted changes to the pact, which was worked out by U.S. diplomats and Iraqi negotiators hand-picked by Maliki.
Failure to seal the pact or renew the U.N. mandate would mean U.S. operations would have to be halted.
The draft agreement calls for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011 and allows Iraq to prosecute them for crimes committed while “off duty.”
Iraqi government spokesman Dabbagh told Reuters that Baghdad considered the term “off duty” vague. One of Iraq’s proposed amendments would define it as any time troops were acting outside of a joint operation authorized by Iraq, he said.
He also said the amended pact would prevent the United States from using Iraqi territory to launch attacks on Iraq’s neighbors.
Neighboring Iran and Syria, both at odds with Washington, oppose the pact because they fear U.S. forces will operate against them. That has made it difficult for some Iraqi politicians to support it.
U.S. officials say they do not want to renegotiate the pact’s substance but might consider adjustments to its wording. Once a deal is reached, Iraq’s parliament must approve it.
If the pact is not ready by December, Iraq has said it would seek an extension of the U.N. Security Council mandate. Washington says it would have to halt everything from security patrols and reconstruction projects to basic services like air traffic control if the mandate expires without a deal.
Violence in Iraq has fallen to four-year lows but militants are still capable of launching lethal attacks. A bomb killed five people and wounded 17 others outside an ice cream shop in central Baghdad on Wednesday, police said.
U.S. forces handed over control of the last province south of Baghdad to Iraqi forces on Wednesday.
Wasit province along the Iranian border was the 13th of Iraq’s 18 provinces to be handed over by U.S. forces to Iraqi control. Only the capital Baghdad and four volatile northern provinces are still under U.S. command.
Additional reporting by Jaafar al-Taie in Kut and Missy Ryan, Khalid al-Ansary and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad and Tabassum Zakaria and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by John O'Callaghan