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Iraq Says Deal Near on Status of US Troops

Iraq's foreign minister says his country is "very close" to finalizing a deal with the United States that would allow American troops to remain in the country beyond 2008.

Hoshyar Zebari discussed the progress of negotiations between Baghdad and Washington Tuesday during a joint press conference with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in Baghdad's protected "Green Zone."

The two sides have been working on an agreement that would keep U.S. forces in Iraq after the United Nations' mandate for the multi-national force expires December 31.

But they have been divided over the issue of granting U.S. servicemen immunity for crimes committed in Iraq.

Iraq's ambassador to the U.S. Samir Sumaidaie told VOA Kurdish Service Tuesday the modifications being made to the pact favor Iraq. He added the negotiations stand as proof of Iraq's sovereignty.

State-run media in neighboring Iran say Iraq's parliamentary speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, is in Tehran to discuss the Status of Forces Agreement and other issues with Iranian leaders.

The Sunni Arab speaker went to the Iranian capital a day later than he had planned. His plane was refused permission to land in Tehran Monday for what Iranian officials called "technical problems."

Meanwhile, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi made an unannounced trip to Baghdad Tuesday and met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The visit by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahayan, who is also deputy commander of the United Arab Emirates military, comes just two days after a visit by Egypt's foreign minister.

Baghdad has been eager to improve its ties with its Arab neighbors. The recent diplomatic activity may be a sign that the mainly Sunni-led Arab states are beginning to warm to the Shi'ite and Kurdish-led Iraqi government.

In other news, a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi policeman were killed during a gun battle with a suspected member of al-Qaida in the northern city of Mosul Tuesday. Military officials say the two were killed during a joint operation at a house occupied by the suspect. The militant also died in the battle, and the house was destroyed by U.S. airships.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.