BAGHDAD — Iraq has requested that more than 5,000 U.S. military trainers stay on past the formal U.S. withdrawal date of Dec. 31, and it's awaiting a "yes or no" from the United States, according to a statement that President Jalal Talabani issued late Monday.
The statement, which appeared in most Iraqi newspapers Tuesday, is the first by any American or Iraqi official to detail the size of the U.S. training contingent that the Iraqis have requested. It seemed to make clear that there were no further discussions likely on the thorny issue of immunity, something U.S. officials have always said was a non-negotiable condition of leaving American troops in Iraq.
"We have agreed to retain more than 5,000 American trainers, without giving them immunity," Talabani said. "We have sent them our agreement to retain this number and are awaiting their response: yes or no."
Last week, Iraqi officials, including Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, released a statement that said they'd agreed to ask for U.S. trainers but wouldn't submit the deal to the Iraqi parliament for approval and wouldn't request immunity. The statement was without details, and U.S. officials, expressing uncertainty about its meaning, said that negotiations were continuing.
Talabani's more specific statement seemed intended to clarify that, at least from an Iraqi perspective, negotiations were over, and the U.S. was expected merely either to agree to stay on or decline to do so.
"If the Americans do not agree to leave behind the trainers without immunity, then we have three choices: to ask for trainers of the (weapons) manufacturing companies, to seek the assistance of NATO or to send members of the Iraqi armed forces to train abroad," Talabani said.
U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington, including at the White House, declined to comment Tuesday.
The issue of immunity is a major one for both sides. U.S. officials have insisted that they can't agree to leave American troops in Iraq unless they're protected from prosecution by Iraqi authorities.
But Iraqi lawmakers told McClatchy last week that the U.S. has proved unreliable in prosecuting Americans who killed Iraqis on its own during the last eight years, citing specifically the failure to convict any of eight Marines charged with killing women and children in the town of Haditha in 2005. Only one of the Marines was taken before a court-martial, and he was acquitted. Charges were dropped against six others and the eighth has never been tried.
"There is a real need for training. No one can deny that," Iskander Witwit, a lawmaker from the Iraqiya bloc, told McClatchy last week. "But whatever the need, it will not affect the immunity clause that stems from the suffering of so many people. So many Iraqis were killed with no proper closure."
Talabani said the decision to request the U.S. trainers came after Iraq's military leaders reported that their troops didn't know how to use "the modern weapons recently imported."
Whether the NATO training mission, whose troops do have immunity from prosecution under Iraqi laws, could be expanded to include the sought-after American trainers isn't clear. That mission has existed since 2004. Some of its training takes place outside Iraq.
The decision to request the 5,000 U.S. trainers came after months of discussions within Iraq's political groups, and the agreement not to seek a formal vote in parliament was symptomatic of the controversy that surrounds it. Even supporters of extending the American presence would find it difficult to take that position in public.
Many key political blocs remain vocal in their opposition.
Muqtada al Sadr, the leader of an influential bloc whose backing allowed Maliki to form a government after the last elections, made certain that his opposition to the American presence was clear in a posting on the Sadr bloc's website.
"I do not approve of the continued presence of any of the occupiers; not the military, not the bases, trainers, embassy, militias (contractors) or anything else American," he wrote. "If my finger were American, I would cut it off."
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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