'Secrecy' surrounds talks
 
Talks over the issue have been shrouded in secrecy but a senior Iraqi source told Al Jazeera that there have been several areas that have alarmed Iraqi negotiators.

 

In particular, Iraqis are fighting a push by the administration of George Bush, the US president, for permanent military bases in the country and for US private security contractors to be given immunity from Iraqi law, Al Jazeera's Ghida Fakhry said.

 

"If the original deadline is missed, it could mean that major obstacles have emerged and that the plan to rush through a deal before George Bush steps down as president might also be in jeopardy," she said.

 

Members of Iraq's parliament say they are facing US pressure to meet deadlines on issues that should take months to resolve.

 

Khalaf al-Olayan said: "[The proposed agreement] has to be presented first to the Iraqi parliament or put to a national referendum because there are very important issues regarding national sovereignty."

 
However David Satterfield, the US state department's senior adviser on Iraq, has said the agreement is on schedule and Washington has previously expressed no doubt that the security deal would be completed by its July deadline.
 
He told reporters from the heavily fortified Green Zone in Iraq's capital, Baghdad, on Tuesday that "we're confident it can be achieved, and by the end of July deadline".
 
"Your question may be, 'well, what if you aren't finished by then?' We believe this is do-able by the end of July, so does the Iraqi side."
 

Sticking points

 
Satterfield said "the issue of contractors including [foreign] security contractors is a sensitive one, is a significant one".
 
David Mack, a former US government official now with the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera he did not think "that this can be accomplished this year".

 

"Quite frankly, there is a war under way in Iraq. I don't think it's ever been possible to negotiate a status of forces agreement during a war.

 

"The American forces there are too large and there's too much fighting going on among different Iraqi sectarian groups to pull this off."

 

The presence of tens of thousands of foreign private security contractors in Iraq has been heavily criticised, especially after the killing last year of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad by Blackwater, a US company which protects American officials in the country.
 
December more likely

 

A majority of the Iraqi parliament wrote to the US congress last week rejecting a long-term security deal with Washington if it is not linked to a requirement that US forces leave.

 

Satterfield: "We want to see Iraqi sovereignty
strengthened, not weakened" [AFP]

"The majority of Iraqi representatives strongly reject any military-security, economic, commercial, agricultural, investment or political agreement with the United States that is not linked to clear mechanisms that obligate the occupying American military forces to fully withdraw from Iraq," the letter to the leaders of Congress said

 

Samir al-Sumaidie, Iraq's ambassador to the US, told Al Jazeera that he believed "there is a genuine desire on both sides to conclude an agreement that will regulate the relationship between the two countries and the two security forces".

 

He admitted that "we're talking about December in reality because the [UN] mandate of the American forces and all foreign forces will run out at the end of December".

 

"But there is a process to be finished and one stage of the process is to agree on the text [and] the target is to reach a text by the end of July and then start the process of ratification."

 

The ambassador said he did "expect some opposition" from some quarters in Iraq's parliament, but "the Iraqi government is serous about trying to achieve this deadline".

 

"We'll try to achieve it. We should try seriously to achieve it. If we don't achieve it then we'll consider the situation at that time but we have to make a serious and determine attempt to achieve it."
 
Attack fears
 
A senior Bush administration official close to the talks reportedly told the Associated Press news agency on Monday that it was "very possible" the US may have to extend the existing UN mandate which expires at the end of the year.

Iran has also opposed the agreement, suggesting that if permanent US military bases are established on Iraqi soil, the country could be used as a launching pad for attacks on neighbouring Tehran.

Iraqi media reports have suggested the US is seeking to keep as many as 50 military bases in Iraq indefinitely, control the nation's air space, and grant troops and foreign private contractors continuing immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.  

American diplomats and military officials have denied that Washington wants to create permanent bases in Iraq.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies