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Iraq to open talks with U.S. on military training

Iraq will open talks with Washington over a military training mission to last beyond a 2011 pullout deadline, Baghdad‘s Foreign Minister said on Wednesday, after months of US appeals for a decision.

The move is a key first step to reaching an agreement on the future of the US troop presence here, with Admiral Mike Mullen, the top American military officer, warning a day earlier that time was running out to strike a deal.

“The political blocs have agreed to let the government start negotiations with the American side only on the issues of training,” Hoshyar Zebari told AFP, following an hours-long closed door meeting of Iraqi politicians, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in Baghdad.

“This is a declaration of intent to let the government start the negotiations,” added Zebari, who took part in the meeting, before noting that there were as yet “no details about the numbers or about new agreements.”

It was not immediately clear when the discussions would begin.

President Jalal Talabani, who hosted the talks, said in a statement that there was general consensus on opening the negotiations, except for representatives of radical anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s parliamentary movement.

Sadrist officials did not immediately comment on the talks, which began on Tuesday evening.

“We appreciated the comments… this evening, as well as the support expressed by most political leaders at the meeting held by President Talabani,” a US embassy official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We are reviewing the decision by the government of Iraq to discuss an ongoing partnership for military training.”

The Pentagon in Washington declined to respond to the news, and the US military in Iraq did not immediately reply to requests for comment from AFP.

Approximately 47,000 US troops remain stationed in Iraq, all of whom must leave by the end of the year under the terms of a bilateral security pact signed in 2008, which remains in force were a deal for a training mission ultimately not agreed.

Wednesday’s decision follows a visit to Iraq by Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, during which he insisted US forces needed a decision “now”.

“Time is quickly running out for us to be able to consider any other course,” Mullen told reporters at a news conference at the US military’s Victory Base Camp on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital on Tuesday.

Mullen, who met Maliki and Talabani during his two-day trip, also insisted that any deal would require parliamentary approval stating that US soldiers stationed in Iraq would enjoy immunity from prosecution.

When asked if the issue of immunity was raised at the meeting, Nasser al-Ani, head of Talabani’s presidential office, responded: “We only focused on discussing the issue of training.”

US and Iraqi military officials assess Iraq‘s security forces to be capable of maintaining internal security, but note the country is lacking in terms of defending its borders, airspace and territorial waters.

Iraq‘s top military officer Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari has repeatedly said that his forces will require training for another decade before they are fully capable of securing the country.

Baghdad has restarted talks with the United States to purchase 36 American F-16 fighter jets, double the figure that had originally been mooted.

Iraq and the US had been close to a final agreement on the F-16s deal earlier this year, but nationwide protests forced the Baghdad government to divert funds earmarked for the warplanes to programmes to help the poor.

Wednesday’s news comes days after the US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, warned in a report that the country was less safe than one year ago and that security was deteriorating.

Figures released on Monday showed the number of Iraqis killed as a result of violence in July declined from the previous month, but still marked the second-highest such toll for 2011.

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