Iraqis alarmed by long-term treaty with US

As Washington and Baghdad scramble to complete their negotiations over an agreement that would forge their long-term relations, Iraqis are alarmed by how much military authority the US will have over their country in the future.

With its UN mandate in Iraq set to expire in December, the US government has been involved since March in lengthy negotiations with Iraq over a long-term treaty.

Two agreements are being negotiated. One, known as the strategic framework agreement, would lay out the basis for long-term bilateral relations in the political, economic and security areas.

The other, the status of forces agreement, sets the legal basis for the presence of US troops in Iraq and spells out the legal rights and obligations of the troops.

Both parties, hope to seal the deal by July.

The Iraqi government has tried to allay public fears that the treaty would give the US wide authority to mount combat operations and grant civilian contractors immunity for prosecution in Iraq.

'Negotiations are nearing the end. We have tried to secure as many rights for Iraq as possible,' Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in remarks published in the local media.

'We have told our neighbours that this accord is not against any country and there will not be any permanent US bases on Iraqi territory from which to launch attacks on those countries,' Zebari said.

'The treaty has no secret agenda but will be made public and submitted to parliament, which will have the last word,' Zebari asserted.

But it is precisely a secret agenda that many Iraqi politicians fear most.

'I have received information that the agreement will provide for the establishment of 500 military positions for US troops, which will have the right to ask for more,' member of parliament Osama al- Nujaifi told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Under the treaty, US troops will also control Iraq's airspace, and various forms of legal protection and immunity will be given to the troops and those contracted by them, al-Nujaifi maintained.

Al-Nujaifi predicted that parliament would block the treaty.

Other politicians are concerned that the treaty is already raising alarm in neighbouring countries, especially Iran, which the US perceives as destabilizing the region's security.

'If we care about Iraq's sovereignty, we have to consider the fears that the treaty provoke in neighbouring countries,' the former Minister of Oil Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum said.

This view is shared by the Shiite al-Sadr bloc of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, an ally of Iran, who has urged his supporters and Iraqis to begin a campaign of protests against the treaty.

'It is inconceivable to even think of building permanent bases for US troops in Iraq, which could become a source of threat to neighbouring countries,' Fatah al-Sheikh of al-Sadr bloc told dpa.