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Iraq: Bush, Talabani Signal Progress On Thorny Security Pact

By Andrew Tully

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Iraq are signaling progress in negotiating what's called a Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA), which would set the rules for the presence of U.S. forces in the country.

U.S. President George W. Bush and his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal Talabani, discussed the issue when they met at the White House on June 25.

"We talked about a strategic framework agreement that suits the Iraqi government," Bush told reporters after their 30-minute meeting. "We talked about elections and different laws that have been passed. I did compliment the president on working hard to see to it that the [Iraqi] legislative session this year has been very successful. We talked about the fact that the [Iraqi] economy's improving, and that the attitude of the people there has improved immeasurably over the years."

Talabani suggested the two sides had made progress in reaching a SOFA deal.

"I agree with [Bush] that we are going to work together for having this agreement, such an agreement between the United States and Iraq, and also to continue our cooperation and our struggle against terrorism and for the promotion of democracy in Iraq and in the Middle East," Talabani said. "We are proud to have such good friends here in this great country."

At A Stalemate

Earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said SOFA negotiations were at a stalemate because of a U.S. demand that private U.S. security contractors be immune from Iraqi law. Reports say the United States has since dropped that demand. The United States has SOFA agreements with some 80 other countries under which its military forces are immune from local laws.

The Iraqi government also wants U.S. forces to notify it in advance of any military operations. The status of that demand isn't known.

The United States and Iraq hope to complete a SOFA by the end of July so that U.S. troops can stay in Iraq after their UN mandate expires at the end of 2008. They also want to reach a separate understanding on long-term security, economic, and military issues.

At the White House, Bush and Talabani also discussed efforts to improve security within Iraq. Both men said the so-called "surge" of some 30,000 additional U.S. troops during the past year has led to reconciliation among the country's three groups -- Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds.

"I complimented the president on the progress that the [Iraqi] government has made," Bush said. "I complimented the president on the fact that, as security has improved, he and his fellow officials are reaching out to all aspects of society to help people realize the blessings of a free life. There's still a lot of work to be done. We recognize that."

Dividing Oil Wealth

Talabani pointed to two laws he said the Iraqi parliament hopes to pass this year. One would divide the country's oil wealth proportionately among the three groups, the other would ensure fair elections nationwide.

The Iraqi president also noted improved ties within the region.

"We improved our relations with our neighbors -- with Turkey, with Egypt, with Jordan, with Kuwait," he said. "We normalized our relations with Iran and with Syria also. So the Iraqi government is now going to play its role in the Arab world."

As the United States and Iraq move forward on the SOFA agreement, however, there's one provision that's of particular concern within the United States, where a new president will take office in January 2009. How long will U.S. forces commit to stay in Iraq, and how great will their role be in defending the country?

The Bush administration originally proposed that U.S. forces defend Iraq. Now Bush's negotiators are reportedly considering changing the role of the troops to merely helping Iraqi forces defend themselves.

Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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