US military trainers might stay: Iraqi PM

Iraq`s political blocs have rejected giving immunity to any American soldiers.

Baghdad: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said US troops might still be able to stay in Iraq as trainers beyond a 2011 withdrawal date, even though the country`s political blocs have rejected giving immunity to any American soldiers.

Maliki last week won backing from Iraq`s leaders for US troops to stay on for training, but without the legal immunity demanded by Washington as part of an accord for an American military role in Iraq more than eight years after the invasion.

Maliki said US troops could be attached to the existing US embassy training mission, or join a broader NATO training group, rather than seek a bilateral deal requiring US immunity that would fail to pass Iraq`s Parliament.

"Since the need for training exists and all the political blocs acknowledge that, we have a number of choices. Now there is a dialogue between us and the Americans," Maliki said in an interview at his presidential residence in Baghdad.

"We are heading toward securing trainers and experts for the American weapons we purchased, but without immunity and without going to Parliament."

Washington had said no training deal could go ahead without US troops receiving similar legal protections they have under the current agreement, which essentially keeps troops under US jurisdiction for certain crimes committed on duty or on base.

It was unclear whether alternatives proposed by Maliki would be acceptable to Washington as US officials have said any training in the field that puts US troops at risk of attack would require the type of protections approved in Parliament.

"You could say withdrawal and immunity might be seen negatively, but we and the Americans understand this positively, we understand our two countries cooperate closely," Maliki said.

After ending combat operations last year, the last 44,000 US troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of the year, handing over bases to Iraqi forces when a security pact expires.

Violence has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian bloodletting in 2006-2007 when Shi`ite-Sunni attacks killed thousands. But Islamist insurgents linked to al Qaeda and radical Shi`ite militias still carry out attacks.

Legal immunity is a sensitive issue in Iraq, where many still have memories of abuses committed by US troops and contractors during the worst of the violence.

Maliki said discussions were still under way on how many American troops Iraq might need, but he said Iraq expects that the number of US soldiers required would be less than the initial American request for around 3,000 soldiers.

He said he expected talks over the troop trainers should be concluded by mid-November.

"The last number proposed by the Americans... was 3,400. We do not need such a large number," he said.

"We are negotiating on this matter, but as I have said, the most serious part of negotiations is over (legal) cover."

Bureau Report