BAGHDAD — Iraq and the United States are "very close" to reaching a security agreement on the future American military presence in the country but have not resolved the question of granting U.S. troops immunity from prosecution, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Tuesday.
Speaking at a news conference in Baghdad's Green Zone with Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, Zebari said the two sides were near a deal but that "bold political decisions" would have be made by Dec. 31, when the United Nations security resolution mandating the multinational force expires.
The negotiations come at a critical time for both nations. An emboldened Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, determined to show that he is independent of Washington, wants more control over security and is insisting on an American troop withdrawal by the end of 2011. The U.S. is facing a widening financial crisis at home and a public growing wary of the high cost of keeping 146,000 troops in Iraq.
Iraqi military forces have made strides in taking over many operations in recent months, but Washington is concerned that ceding too much responsibility to the Iraqis too quickly could jeopardize the country's security gains. Two bombs exploded outside the Green Zone near the Iraqi Foreign Ministry shortly before Zebari and Negroponte met with reporters.
Among the contentious points in the negotiations are a specific withdrawal date and Washington's demand that U.S. troops in Iraq have immunity from prosecution by local courts. Maliki is facing pressure from nationalists not to allow troops to escape prosecution. American troops have faced U.S. military courts- martial for alleged crimes such as the rape and killing of Iraqis.
Questions of criminal jurisdiction intensified among politicians after it was reported last year that private security guards with the company Blackwater USA accused of killing civilians would not be tried in Iraqi courts.
"This issue needs, I think, some bold political decisions. And we are at that stage," said Zebari, adding that he expected "hectic political meetings here in Baghdad on this issue to determine the fate of the agreement."
Negroponte did not elaborate on the talks, except to say that "both countries are pursuing this issue from the point of view of their own national self-interest."
In recent weeks, the U.S. has blamed Iran for attempting to undermine the security talks. Baghdad and Tehran, both Shiite Muslim-led governments, have been increasing business and diplomatic ties, which has concerned Washington and Iraq's Sunni Muslim neighbors.
Iran contends that the U.S. military presence in the region is causing instability. On Tuesday, Gen. Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, said a new U.S.-Iraqi security agreement would be a "disgrace" for the Iraqis.
In other developments, Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, and the country's two vice presidents approved a provincial elections law. They also urged parliament, which passed the legislation, to ensure that minorities, such as Christians, are represented on local government boards. The elections are expected to take place by Jan. 31.
The U.S. military said an American soldier was shot and killed in the northern city of Mosul early Tuesday, when U.S. and Iraqi troops were fired upon from a house entered by a suspected militant wearing a suicide vest. At least 4,179 American military personnel have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org.