The Iraqi government says progress is being made toward concluding a troubled long-term security deal with the United States.
The agreement is expected to address responsibilities and legal protections for U.S. troops in Iraq and provide a strategic framework for the overall U.S.-Iraqi political and military relationship once the UN mandate runs out at the end of the year.
The details have been under negotiation for weeks in Baghdad, and much about the process and intense bargaining is shrouded in mystery.
But on July 2, the Iraqi side made its most detailed public statement about the discussions to date. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters in Baghdad that progress is being made despite the many reports of disagreements.
He started with what he said is clear agreement on the objectives of the security deal.
"The aim of this agreement [with the United States] is for the U.S. security, military, and political commitment to continue after the change of administration [in the United States] in order that there will be no abrupt break," Zebari said. "This is the objective as we discuss the time frame; no more and no less."
In diplomatic language, it was signal that both sides appear to want a deal before the end of this year, ahead of a change of U.S. presidential administrations in January.
A U.S.-Iraq security deal is needed if U.S. troops are to stay on in Iraq after a UN mandate for their presence expires at the end of this year.
Zebari suggested that the deal both sides hope to reach in the next months might have to be an interim one and not the final version. He said an interim pact could take the form of a memorandum of understanding that would be less extensive than a formal security agreement.
The statement could be a warning that some aspects of the security deal remain highly controversial between the negotiators. He did not specify, however, which those points might be.
At issue in the negotiations are how many U.S. military bases should remain in Iraq, how much independence U.S. forces should have in conducting military operations, and whether U.S. troops would have immunity from Iraqi law.
Also under discussion are questions that include whether U.S. troops should have the right to detain Iraqi suspects without the approval of Iraqi authorities.
Zebari said an earlier reported U.S. demand regarding legal immunity for U.S. contractors is no longer part of the security deal negotiations.
"[U.S. negotiators] have dropped the issue of immunity for the private security firms whose abuses have caused our people to suffer in more than one incident," Zebari said. "Also, with regard to joint operations, the understanding is that these are to be carried out on the basis of partnership or by a joint committee."
The issue of private security contractors has been politically charged in Iraq since employees of one company, Blackwater, killed 17 Iraqi civilians as they responded to a perceived attack in downtown Baghdad.
Zebari also said that the U.S. side was ready to let Iraqi authorities control Iraqi airspace long as the Iraqi side has appropriate air power and technology.
The sticky issue of airspace control is being watched closely by neighboring Iran, which accuses the U.S. of seeking the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Iraq for the purpose of launching strikes against it.
U.S. officials have not commented on Zebari's remarks. In Washington, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said only that negotiations are "continuing on a regular basis."
Zebari said that the U.S. side has left it open to Baghdad how to choose for itself whether U.S. troops stay.
"As far as the American side is concerned, they have made it crystal clear to us: 'If you want us to stay, we cannot do so without a legal framework. It is up to you; if you want an agreement you are welcome to it: a protocol, a memorandum of understanding or a bilateral arrangement, that is fine with us. If you want to go back to the UN Security Council [for extension of the multinational forces' mandate], we are OK with that as well. If you do not want us at all, just say so,'" Zebari said.
But Zebari underlined that, for the Iraqi side, there is no question that U.S. troops must stay on beyond the end of this year. How much longer after that, however, remains undecided.
"We are not talking about 50 years, 25 years, or 10 years," Zebari said, "we are negotiating about one or two years, so this is not going to be another colonization of Iraq."
That short time frame -- one or two years -- is likely to please Iraq's diverse political factions, who often quarrel publicly over whether the U.S. occupies the country.
compiled from agency reports