US Envoy Admits Iran’s Regional Power

A00210551.jpgTEHRAN (FNA)- Iran is successfully blocking US efforts to secure a long-term troop presence in Iraq, the American ambassador to Baghdad conceded.

In remarks that acknowledged that Tehran is at least as powerful as Washington in Iraq’s corridors of power, Ryan Crocker blamed Iran for delays in finalizing an agreement that would underpin the US operation in Iraq beyond the end of this year.

The US is in talks with Iraqi officials to get them to sign a provocative security agreement which secures long-term US presence in Iraq.

If ratified by the Iraqi government, the Status of Forces Agreements (SOFA) would also grant US forces in Iraq immunity from prosecution.

It also gives the occupation forces a free rein to stage military operations wherever and whenever they deem necessary, without consulting the Iraqi government.

Tehran is concerned that the yet-not-concluded security deal could lead to establishment of permanent US bases in the neighboring country.

Iraqi and American negotiators missed a July deadline to seal a legal framework for US bases and troop operations in the country. Until Crocker’s remarks that Iran was “pushing very hard” against the deal, Iranian interference was a factor that went officially unacknowledged.

The United States maintains more than 140,000 troops in Iraq as part of an active combat operation. But the UN mandate that legitimized and granted legal protection to the US-led coalition that overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003 is due to expire at the end of the year.

The proposed pact is also facing widespread opposition among Iraqi politicians.

Many fear Washington has plans to keep permanent bases, despite a denial of any such plan written into the proposal. Iraqis say the drafts submitted by the Americans thus far would infringe on Iraq’s sovereignty by giving US forces too much freedom to operate.

The security pact also faces strong criticism from members of al-Maliki’s own coalition. Two Iraqi officials familiar with the negotiations have warned that a deal is unlikely to be reached before the end of President Bush’s term in January unless Washington backs off some demands seen as giving American forces too much freedom to operate in Iraq and infringing on Iraqi sovereignty.

Iraq’s parliament must approve the deal, and the two officials said opposition in the legislature was so widespread that it stood no chance of winning approval without significant changes in the US position.

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, replaced professional diplomats on the negotiating team with members of his private office in August.

Baghdad maintains that US efforts to secure immunity from prosecution in Iraq for troops and contractors is an unacceptable demand. David Satterfield, the top US negotiator, travelled to Baghdad with a counter proposal but Crocker admitted that Maliki was unwilling to concede the principle when popular opinion in Iraq was overwhelmingly opposed.

“The Iraqi people disagree with anything that breaks their independence and sovereignty and judicial sovereignty,” he said. “On this basis, the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government look at the agreement as being imposed on them.”

Maliki has also insisted that the US pull out all its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 but the US is only prepared to concede a transition to fully Iraq control of security by that date would be a shared goal.

Securing the approval of the Iraqi parliament for any deal looms as a further impediment to a quick resolution of the impasse. Iraqi MPs have warned that there is deep suspicion of US intentions across the political spectrum.

Dhafer al-Ani, a Sunni politician, warned that parliament would conduct a protracted debate on the document.

“Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the arguments in parliament will be acute,” he stressed.

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