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U.S. Negotiators To Return To Iraq For Security Talks

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- U.S. negotiators will return to Baghdad soon for more talks with Iraq on a security deal that has bogged down over the issue of immunity for U.S. troops.

Critically for both sides, a UN mandate that governs the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq expires at the end of the year.

"If we do not reach an agreement, and this is a very conceivable possibility -- if there is no agreement then the alternative is to go to the [UN] Security Council and ask for an extension of the mandate," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Al-Arabiyah television in an interview.

A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman in Baghdad said David Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator on Iraq, and Brett McGurk, an official at the National Security Council, would arrive soon in Baghdad. She declined to be more specific.

Iraqi officials have said the government was waiting for the United States to respond to its latest proposals on immunity.

They have said they would be prepared for legal immunity to apply to U.S. troops who were on military bases or on missions. But if there was evidence of intentional wrongdoing by troops, then jurisdiction should be decided by a committee, they say.

Washington wants to protect its soldiers from being tried in Iraqi courts, terms it also requires in many other countries where it has bases.

But even if agreement on the security deal is reached in the coming weeks, it will still need the approval of Iraq's parliament, where reaching consensus in the past on contentious issues has proven difficult.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said the United States has agreed all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of 2011 under the pact. U.S. officials have declined to confirm details of the agreement until it is concluded.

Iraqi legislators warned the deal would come under close scrutiny.

"Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the arguments in parliament will be acute," said Dhafir al-Ani, a senior politician with the main Sunni Arab bloc, adding he would be surprised if the deal passed before the end of the year.

Hassan al-Sunaid, a legislator from al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party, said the deal could be passed before the UN mandate expired if it did not infringe on Iraqi sovereignty and if there was a clear timetable for U.S. troops to withdraw.

But blanket immunity for U.S. troops would be an obstacle, he added.

'Critical' Situation

Speaking on Iraqi television last week, al-Maliki said a "critical" situation awaited the United States and Iraq if a deal was not signed before the UN mandate expires. He said the UN mandate would only be extended on Iraq's terms.

The Pentagon will pull 8,000 more soldiers from Iraq by February, leaving 138,000 troops deployed there. All five extra combat brigades sent to Iraq last year completed their withdrawal in July and have not been replaced.

Despite a drop in overall violence, the Bush administration has taken a cautious approach to troop cuts and any decision on a major withdrawal will be left to the next U.S. president, who takes office in January.

Al-Maliki has vowed that no foreigners will receive "absolute" immunity. There have been a number of high-profile incidents involving U.S. soldiers killing or abusing Iraqis since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iraqi officials say such incidents have been reflected in the debate over immunity for U.S. troops.