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Tue 2 Aug 2011 04:22 PM

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US troops in Iraq ‘need legal immunity’

Top US military chief says any troops staying on in Iraq must receive immunity

US troops in Iraq ‘need legal immunity’
US President Obama with troops in Iraq. The US has said it will withdraw its ground troops by the year-end

Any
agreement for US troops to stay in Iraq beyond a year-end deadline for their
withdrawal would require the Iraqi parliament to agree to grant American
soldiers legal immunity, the top US military officer said on Tuesday.

Immunity
for American troops staying on in Iraq could complicate the already difficult
wrangling for Iraq's fragile, multi-sectarian government, whose leaders are
under pressure to decide whether some US soldiers should stay in the country.

Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki says Iraq may need only trainers rather than US troops,
allowing him to bypass fractious negotiations with parliament. But US officials
say any training deal would likely involve American troops and require a
lawmaker agreement on immunity.

"That
kind of agreement, which would include privileges and immunities for American
men and women in uniform, will need to go through the [parliament],"
Admiral Mike Mullen, the top US military chief, said when asked if a deal for US
troops to stay on would need lawmakers to approve immunity.

Iraq's
political blocs were scheduled on Tuesday to debate the issue of a continued US
military presence. Maliki said this week he hoped they would reach an agreement
soon to present the government's demands to Washington.

Keeping
US troops on Iraqi soil, eight years after the US invasion that ousted Saddam
Hussein, is a sensitive issue that is testing the fragile power-sharing
government consisting of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs.

Mullen
and other US officials have said Iraqi leaders need to say soon whether they
want some American troops to stay on before it becomes too late to amend the
withdrawal plan.

"I
believe they also understand that time is quickly running out for us to be able
to consider any other course," Mullen said. "My government has made
it clear that we would entertain a request for some troops to stay."

Violence
has fallen sharply since the heights of Iraq's sectarian bloodletting in 2006
and 2007, but insurgents and militias still carry out almost daily bombings and
attacks. Maliki says Iraq's security forces can contain the threat, but some
officials acknowledge gaps in their military capabilities.

Iraqi
officials have said they are leaning toward signing agreements with civilian
trainers and have rejected the idea that those specialists would have immunity
in Iraq.

An
Iraqi government spokesman was not immediately available to comment on Mullen's
remarks.

US
troops ended combat missions last August and the remaining 47,000 soldiers are
engaged mainly in advising the Iraqi military and helping them in
counter-terrorism operations.

Once
the military withdrawal date passes, the State Department plans to use more
than 5,000 contractors to protect the US civilian-led mission to support Iraq's
reconstruction.

The
issue of immunity has been a delicate one in Iraq since the 2003 invasion that
toppled Saddam and some U.S troops and contractors have been accused of abuses.

In a
2007 shooting incident, five contractors working for Blackwater security firm
were accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in a case that outraged Iraqis and
strained ties between Baghdad and Washington.

Under
the US Coalition Provisional Authority, private security contractors enjoyed
legal immunity, but that right was removed for most private security
contractors under the current US-Iraqi security agreement which expires at the
end of 2011.

Mullen
also said Iran continued to interfere in Iraq's political process and arm
militias who were carrying out attacks and rocket strikes on Iraqi soil,
despite a recent drop in attacks on US soldiers in Iraq.

"It
is clear that Tehran seeks a weak Iraq," he said.

US
officials said recent actions by US and Iraqi forces and by Iraqi politicians
had stemmed a recent increase in attacks. Fourteen US troops were killed in
June, the highest number of US casualties in Iraq since 2008.

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