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Officials say US-Iraq pact unaffected by Obama win

by Staff Writers
Baghdad (AFP) Nov 5, 2008
US and Iraqi officials insisted Wednesday that protracted negotiations over the presence of American troops in Iraq would be unaffected by the election of Democrat Barack Obama as future president.

"We want to finish this agreement with this current administration," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters at a gathering to celebrate the climax of the US presidential election.

"The president-elect and his team are fully aware of the status of our talks and discussions. And they understand the rationale of concluding the agreement," Zebari said.

Washington and Baghdad are racing to clinch a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) deal which would determine the future of US forces in Iraq beyond 2008 when the present UN mandate expires end December.

"We hope to conclude the SOFA before that," said Zebari.

The latest draft stipulates that American forces will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 2009 and complete a pullout from the country by 2011.

But the signing of the pact has been repeatedly delayed and a failure to agree on the current draft would raise a new set of thorny problems for both Washington and Baghdad.

Late last month Baghdad proposed more changes to the draft heightening speculation that the agreement could be further delayed or even scuppered before the December 31 deadline.

A failure to sign the arrangement in time would likely force Iraq to ask the United Nations to extend the current mandate that makes legal the presence of foreign troops in the war-torn nation.

Such a request would require the approval of the UN Security Council.

US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker stressed that Obama's administration in-waiting would not interfere with President George W. Bush's goal of clinching the military arrangement before he steps down January 20.

"In America we only have one president at a time," Crocker said in a brief speech at the US embassy.

"The SOFA process will carry forwards under the current administration," he said, adding that an agreement had to put in place before the expiry of the UN deadline.

American officials are currently reviewing Baghdad's suggested changes and a response is expected within days.

"We are very close; we are waiting for the US response to our amendments and changes. We are hopeful that within the next few days or couple days we will receive answer," said Zebari.

But Zebari warned that the deal which has seen the Americans compromise on the sticky issues of immunity for US soldiers has no more wiggle room.

"The deal has been stretched to the limit, compromises have been exhausted," he said.

Zebari rejected the idea that Iraq would prefer to negotiate with the new president, adding that the current timeline for a US withdrawal from Iraq was very close to the 16 months Obama had promised during his campaign.

"The difference is not that much, it also depends on conditions on the ground," Zebari said.

On Tuesday, the Baghdad edition of the London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat said the Americans had agreed to three of the five latest changes proposed by Iraq.

Quoting unnamed sources, it said Washington had dropped the clause that authorises Baghdad and Washington to seek an extension for retaining troops in the cities beyond 2009 and in the country beyond 2011.

The report said Washington has also agreed to allow Iraqis to inspect the incoming and outgoing American postal mail, and was also ready to make some changes in the language of the texts.

Washington has already agreed to allow Iraq to prosecute American troops and civilians if they commit any serious crime outside the base when off duty. But Iraqis want to prosecute them for crimes conducted on their bases.

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Iran army warns US forces to steer clear of borders
Tehran (AFP) Nov 5, 2008
Tehran's military on Wednesday urged US forces to steer clear of Iran's borders with neighbouring Iraq and warned it would respond "to any invasion," the official IRNA news agency reported.

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