Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday prospects for an
early agreement on the future of the American troop presence in Iraq
have improved because of what he says is more flexibility on the U.S.
side. Zebari discussed the on-going negotiations with Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State
Senior Iraqi officials had been quoted, as recently as last week, as saying that the negotiations with the United States were deadlocked.
But after a set of talks with Bush administration officials capped by his meeting with Rice, the Iraqi Foreign Minister said he is optimistic a deal can still be finalized by the end of July target date set by the U.S. officials.
The two sides have been negotiating a so-called status of forces agreement that would govern the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, after the current U.N. Security Council mandate for foreign troops expires at the end of the year.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his unhappiness over provisions sought by the United States seen as infringing on Iraqi sovereignty.
In comments to reporters after the meeting with Rice, Foreign Minister Zebari did not cite specifics. But he said there has been more flexibility by the U.S. side which would make the emerging deal more marketable among Iraqi parliamentarians who must approve it:
"We've said from the beginning that this agreement would be a transparent agreement," said Hoshyar Zebari. "It would not be secretive. It won't include any secretive, confidential attachments, or appendices. At the end of the day, when we finalize the document, we will take it to our assembly, to the council of representatives, to ratify it. But we haven't reached that stage yet. We don't have an agreement yet. We are still negotiating."
Zebari, who met Washington Post editors Tuesday, was quoted by that newspaper as saying that the United States has compromised on a range of issues, including backing down on a demand for legal immunity for U.S. security contractors in Iraq.
He told the Wall Street Journal remaining points of contention include how many bases U.S. troops would operate after year's end, and whether U.S. forces would retain the power to arrest Iraqi civilians.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey called the Rice-Zebari meeting positive and said the U.S. side also expects an agreement in a reasonable period of time though he would not be specific.
Casey reiterated assurances by Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, the lead U.S. negotiator, that the Bush administration is not seeking any terms that would impinge on Iraq's sovereignty:
"We are not seeking permanent bases," said Tom Casey. "We are not seeking to, quite 'control Iraqi airspace' or some of the other stranger rumors that have been out there. What this is about is insuring that, again, there is a legal basis for our troops to be able to operate there, and be able to continue to do the things that we have been seeking to do. And all of that, the long range goal here, is to be able make it so that Iraq no longer needs the support of the United States or other foreign troops to be able to control its security and fully be able to run its affairs."
Foreign Minister Zebari said parallel U.S. -Iraqi talks on a long-term strategic framework agreement, governing future political, economic, scientific and cultural relations, are close to a successful conclusion.