Baghdad agrees talks on extending US presence


BAGHDAD HAS agreed to open talks with Washington on extending the mission of US troops in Iraq beyond the end-of-year deadline for full withdrawal. The Iraqi government has been under growing pressure from the Obama administration to take a decision on this issue so arrangements can be made for the 47,000 troops remaining in the country.

However, the size of the force to remain, the duration of its stay, and whether or not soldiers would enjoy immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law have not been settled.

Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has been reluctant to agree to the extension of the US deployment because of fierce opposition from coalition partner, radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the pro-Iranian Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.

Mr Sadr has vowed to stage mass protests against extension of the US presence and to reactivate his Mahdi Army militia and attack US troops who remain beyond January 1st, 2012. A large number of Iraqis insist their country should be free of all foreign forces by that date. Consequently, the government is proceeding cautiously and behind closed doors.

Foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said: “The political blocs have agreed to let the government start negotiations with the Americans only on the issue of training” Iraqi troops. Chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff Mike Mullen was in Baghdad this week to urge the Iraqis to take a decision immediately. “Time is quickly running out for us to be able to consider any . . . course” other than withdrawing, he said.

US and Iraqi officials argue Iraqi forces are capable of providing domestic security but will not be able to defend the country’s sovereignty for another decade. However, the number of attacks against Iraqi troops and civilians rose to 271 in June and 259 in July, marking the highest fatality rates this year.

UN inspector general for Iraq reconstruction Stuart Bowen has warned the country is less safe today than a year ago and security is deteriorating.

Seven people died on Wednesday at Ramadi in the west and 16 were injured on Tuesday by a bomb planted near a Syrian Catholic church in the northern city of Kirkuk.

The Iraqi government may seek to maintain a US troop presence along the fault line between the Kurdish autonomous area and neighbouring Arab-majority provinces ruled by Baghdad. The Kurds seek to annex to their region Kirkuk, its oil fields and large swathes of territory in Diyala and Nineveh provinces, risking civil war.

In a bid to stem criticism of his 40-plus member cabinet accused of indecisiveness, Mr Maliki has cut the number of ministers by a dozen, dropping most ministers of state without portfolio. He plans to consolidate some ministries and has agreed to appoint ministers of defence and interior, portfolios he has held since forming his government last December.

Meanwhile, parliament has voted to approve the establishment of an Iraqi strategic policy council which would curb Mr Maliki’s influence in the security sector. This council is to be headed by Ayad Allawi, Mr Maliki’s chief rival, who leads the secular Iraqiya party, winner of the largest number of seats in the 2010 parliamentary election.