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U.S. troops’ immunity a ‘sticking point’ in talks about Iraq military presence

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The question of legal immunity for U.S. troops remains a “sticking point” in talks between the United States and Iraq over a possible U.S. military presence beyond a year-end deadline, a defense official said Monday.

U.S. officials insisted that talks are still underway and have not collapsed over protecting American soldiers from Iraqi prosecution, despite a media report over the weekend saying otherwise.

“Nobody’s thrown in the towel yet,” a senior defense official told AFP.

But as the clock ticks on a troop withdrawal deadline that expires at the end of the year, the two sides so far have failed to reach an agreement on the make-or-break question of legal safeguards, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“If there are no legal protections then our ability to support will be extremely limited. So that’s a major sticking point right now,” the official said.

To try to get around the impasse over legal immunity, the U.S. administration is “looking at all the different options right now,” including expanding personnel at the U.S. embassy and using more contractors, the official said.

The roughly 41,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq must withdraw by the end of the year under a bilateral security accord, which remains in force if no post-2011 deal is agreed.

Recent comments from Iraqi and U.S. leaders have exposed the rift over legal protections for American troops, with US officials insisting their soldiers must be shielded from Iraqi prosecution.

U.S. commanders had hoped to keep a small contingent of American troops on the ground in Iraq after 2011 to help train Baghdad’s forces, bolster the country’s fledgling air and naval defenses as well as counter the influence of neighboring Iran.