BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Nuri al-Maliki on Tuesday won more backing from the political blocs in his power-sharing government to negotiate on plans to keep U.S. troops in Iraq as military trainers, but without granting them immunity if they commit crimes.
The decision by Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs allows Maliki to continue discussing keeping some U.S. soldiers in Iraq after the 2011 deadline for their withdrawal, more than eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Baghdad and Washington must still negotiate over how many troops will stay on, how long they will stay, and over the tricky issue of jurisdiction, which would afford American soldiers the kind of legal protections they have elsewhere.
“The leaders agreed on the need to train the Iraqi forces and to complete their arming as soon as possible and on the need to support the Iraqi government,” Deputy Prime Minister Ross Nuri Shawis said, reading a statement.
“The people who attended the meeting agreed there is no need to grant immunity, in addition to that they suggested training should take place in Iraqi military bases only.”
Only supporters of radical anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr rejected the accord. His Mehdi Army militia once battled U.S. troops but he is now a key ally of Maliki in parliament.
U.S. officials say they want troops to have similar legal protections to those they have under the current security agreement, which expires this year.
That would mean allowing Iraq some jurisdiction over U.S. troops for certain grave crimes committed outside duty, for example, but the United States would get prime jurisdiction for crimes committed during duty or on its bases.
Violence in Iraq has declined sharply since the bloody days of sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007 when Shi'ite and Sunni extremists killed thousands. But bombings, attacks and assassinations still occur daily.
Iraqi and U.S. officials agree that local armed forces are able to contain a stubborn but weakened insurgency, but they say Iraq needs trainers to help the military fill some of its capability gaps, especially in maritime and air defense.
(Reporting by Aseel Kami; writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Andrew Roche)