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Iraq Says Bold Decisions Needed On U.S. Troops

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi political leaders need to take bold political decisions to finalize a deal allowing U.S. troops to stay in Iraq after a UN mandate expires this year, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said.

Iraq and the United States have been negotiating for months over a security agreement to resolve the future status of American troops after the mandate enacted after the 2003 invasion expires.

Both countries say the U.S. force, which now numbers about 146,000, is still needed to protect Iraq despite dramatic improvements in security over the past 18 months.

Among the contentious issues are deadlines for the U.S. troops' withdrawal and the question of whether they can be tried for crimes in Iraqi courts.

"This issue needs bold political decisions, and you will see an active political movement among the [Iraqi] political leadership to finalize it," Zebari told a news conference with visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

Both sides have said the agreement is very close.

'Striking' Security Progress

Iraqi officials have said they want the agreement to require U.S. forces to leave by the end of 2011 unless given further permission to stay longer. U.S. officials have been more tight-lipped about its contents.

"We both agree that while we're still negotiating there's no point in getting into a detailed discussion on where we might not yet have come to closure," Negroponte said, adding that he had not participated in talks over the deal during his visit.

Negroponte, a former U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, praised "striking" security progress in Iraq and political measures like the passage of a law to hold provincial elections. But he said further political and economic progress was needed.

"I hope that Iraqis will come together to translate that progress into a revitalization of the economy and the delivery of critical infrastructure and services to the population," he said.

Iraq says it wants the power to try U.S. soldiers if they commit crimes. In other countries where U.S. forces are based, so-called "status of forces agreements" generally place them under U.S. military law rather than the law of the host country.

Any withdrawal dates in the agreement will also be politically contentious back in the United States.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama favors withdrawing combat troops from Iraq by mid-2010. His Republican rival, John McCain, also says withdrawals are possible in the next few years but does not want to commit to a timetable.