Iraq and the U.S. are getting closer to completing an agreement that would govern the presence of U.S. troops in the country, the two nation's top diplomats said Saturday.
Less than a week after the resumption of negotiations on the deal in Baghdad, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said there was progress and they hoped for a conclusion soon.
"We are very close," Zebari said as he sat down for talks with Rice on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. "I think it is in the final stages. This will need the support of all the political leaders to get this agreement."
"So soon, I hope we will get some good news for both of us," he told reporters.
Rice offered a less enthusiastic appraisal. She said the talks were difficult and noted that the U.S. still was seeking assurances on legal protections for U.S. troops in Iraq.
"We're making good progress," she said. "This is an important agreement. It is also not easy when you are working with a sovereign government. We intend to fully respect the sovereignty of Iraq."
"We need certain protections for our forces so that we can continue the gains that we've been making, but we are also working in the context of a long-term strategic framework that will make us allies and friends for a long, long time to come," she said.
Role of Iraqi troops
She also congratulated Zebari for improvements in security in Iraq, which she attributed largely to the increasing role Iraqi troops and police are taking.
Zebari said in an Associated Press interview Friday that his government hopes to sign the agreement before the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 4 because the chance to complete it while President Bush is in office is narrowing.
The proposed agreement, under negotiation for most of this year, would replace the current U.N. mandate that expires Dec. 31. Any agreement must be ratified by the Iraqi parliament.
The main sticking points include Iraqi objections to immunity for U.S. troops and private contractors and demands for oversight over American forces during raids and detentions.
Zebari said if it's not possible to reach agreement by the election, the alternative is to go back to the U.N. Security Council to extend the mandate of the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq.