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Iraq Expects U.S. Reply On Troop Pact Within Days

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq expects a reply from the United States within days to its proposal for changes to a pact requiring U.S. troops to leave by the end of 2011, Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari has said.

"We expect by Tuesday or Wednesday next week to receive answers from the American side about the suggestions of amendments proposed by the Iraqi cabinet," Zebari told U.S.-funded Alhurra Arabic language television. "We are talking about a small space of time. It is not open ended, and every side is coming nearer to the moment of truth."

Later, an Iraqi government spokesman said he expects a U.S. response only after this week's presidential election in the United States.

"I think the American response on the pact will take some time because they are busy with the elections. I do not expect them to get back to us before November 4," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Ziadeh said Washington was considering the Iraqi proposals and would respond shortly.

Both countries appear to be moving quickly in a last-ditch scramble to save the pact, which was hammered out over months of intensive negotiations but hit a snag in October when Baghdad demanded changes just days after announcing a final text.

Iraq has become safer than at any point since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. In October, 238 Iraqi civilians were killed in violence, according to Iraqi government figures, the lowest monthly toll since the war began.

Seven U.S. service members died in attacks, the lowest figure of the war.

The comparative quiet has helped the Iraqi government grow more assertive in seeking a firm withdrawal deadline as part of the pact, which will provide a mandate for U.S. forces beyond the end of this year when a UN Security Council mandate ends.

Iraqi officials have said their proposed amendments would tighten the language demanding a pullout in three years, clarify circumstances under which U.S. troops could be tried in Iraqi courts, and ban U.S. attacks on Iraq's neighbors from its soil.

Mending Relations With Syria

The proposed ban on attacking Iraq's neighbors has gained attention after U.S. forces launched a raid last week on a Syrian border village, which Damascus said killed eight people. Iraqi and U.S. officials say the target was a smuggler of weapons and foreign fighters operating in the border area.

The Iraqi cabinet repudiated the U.S. raid, but not until two days after it took place, a delay that infuriated Damascus.

Zebari said he spoke by telephone on November 1 to his Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, and assured him that Iraq was not aware in advance of the raid.

"We have exchanged points of view and we have agreed on the necessity of containing this passing problem," Zebari said.

Washington's Middle Eastern foes, including Syria and especially Iran, are wary of the U.S. troops pact, arguing that the United States is seeking a foothold in the region.

Iran's objections particularly resonate with some Iraqi Shi'ites, including parties in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition that have historical ties to Tehran.

But Zebari said politicians were warming to the pact.

"Generally speaking, the general atmosphere and the statements given by politicians are more positive than before," he said.

If the pact should fail, Baghdad has said it will seek an extension to the UN mandate. Washington has said that if the mandate expires without a deal it will halt all operations, including services it provides Iraq such as air traffic control.

U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt said a failure in the pact negotiations could hurt Baghdad's efforts to attract investment now that the country was perceived as being safer.

"What business people are telling us is that they're watching that set of negotiations as they factor in the public policy component of their investment decision," Kimmitt said on the sidelines of a Baghdad investment conference.