BAGHDAD — The possibility that some U.S. troops would remain in Iraq past the current Dec. 31 withdrawal date appeared all but doomed Wednesday as Iraqi political leaders ruled out any special legal protections for military trainers who stay behind.
U.S. officials, who've been advocating a continued presence past the withdrawal date set in a 2008 agreement, held out hope that some sort of accommodation might still be reached.
But Iskander Witwit, the ranking member of the Iraqi parliament's defense and security committee, said negotiations are now over, and that U.S. trainers would be invited to remain only if U.S. officials drop their insistence that the Iraqi parliament grant them immunity from prosecution in Iraq — a standard feature of U.S. status-of-forces agreements around the world.
"This is the finish. It is final," Witwit, a retired Iraqi air force major general, told McClatchy. "The major political blocs have reached an agreement, which will not be referred to the parliament, to retain some trainers but without giving them immunity."
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A member of the Iraqiya bloc, the junior partner in Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's national unity government, Witwit said the decision reflects Iraqis' continuing anger that U.S. troops and contractors accused of killing "many Iraqis" have gone largely unpunished by American authorities.
"It stems from the suffering of so many people. So many people were killed, and there was no proper closure," he said.
He added that if U.S. trainers pull out, Baghdad would turn to other countries for training.
Omar al Mashhadani, a spokesman for the Iraqiya bloc, singled out the systematic mistreatment and torture of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004 as a reason for Iraq's refusal to grant U.S. trainers immunity.
Eleven soldiers were convicted in the case, and a reserve brigadier general was demoted, but no top officer or member of the Bush administration was punished in the case.
One of those convicted in the case, Army Reserve Spec. Charles Graner Jr., was released from prison in August after serving six and a half years of his 10-year sentence for inflicting sexual, physical and psychological abuse on Iraqi detainees.
Mashhadani also mentioned the failure of the U.S. to punish any of the U.S. Marines charged with killing 24 Iraqi men, women and children in the town of Haditha in 2005. Charges were brought against eight Marines, but they were dropped against six and a seventh was acquitted by a court-martial. The eighth has yet to be tried.
The decision not to ask the Iraqi parliament to consider approving immunity or other legal protections for U.S. troops was made at a meeting Tuesday attended by Maliki and the leader of the Iraqiya bloc, Ayad Allawi, at the home of President Jalal Talabani.
A statement released late Tuesday said trainers would be invited to stay but that immunity would not be extended. On Wednesday, officials at the U.S. Embassy here said they were still talking to Iraqi leaders to determine what the decision not to provide immunity means to the 2008 "strategic framework agreement" that allows for security and defense cooperation after the final withdrawal of U.S. forces.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Capt. John Kirby said the U.S. military was still reviewing the statement and said U.S. officials were "pleased and encouraged that the discussions are ongoing."
"I don't think it's helpful or productive to carry on the negotiations through the press," Kirby said. "But we'll ensure that our troops have the protections they need."
But Iraqi parliamentarians made it clear that they would not consider any such protections, and that if the U.S. insists on a ratified agreement, there now appears to be no way it can come about.
As of Tuesday, about 42,500 U.S. troops were in Iraq, down from some 92,000 at the beginning of 2011.
On Wednesday, the State Department said it will employ more than 5,000 private security contractors next year to protect its diplomatic missions in Iraq. However, the exact number of private contractors has not been determined, the department said.
(Nancy A. Youssef in Brussels and special correspondent Sahar Issa in Baghdad contributed.)
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