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U.S., Iraq narrow differences over forces pact, Iraq says

BAGHDAD — Iraq's foreign minister said Wednesday that the wide gap between Iraq and the United States over the future of U.S. forces in Iraq had narrowed after the American side had shown "excellent flexibility" on some key issues that had threatened to derail or postpone the accord.

Hoshyar Zebari said that the two sides had reached "an acceptable result" on one of those divisive issues: the immunity of private security companies from Iraqi law. He said it now was agreed that the Iraqi judiciary "should have the final decision" on the issue of arresting U.S. citizens.

"The Americans accepted after very deep study and because of the sensitivity of the issue that the private security companies, which our people have suffered from in more than one incident, are not included in the legal immunity," he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad wouldn't comment on the negotiations.

The status of forces agreement, similar to those the U.S. has signed with more than 80 other nations, would set out the rules governing how American troops could operate in Iraq. Iraqi negotiators also have insisted that it place the tens of thousands of private security contractors in the country under the rule of Iraqi law.

As recently as mid-June, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had declared the talks at an impasse after a U.S. draft of the agreement stipulated that the U.S. would have access to 58 military bases, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution for American soldiers and private contractors.

Zebari also said Iraq had insisted that any agreement be subject to annual review. "We are not talking about an agreement that binds Iraq for 25 years or 20 years or 10 years," he added.

Several issues remain to be resolved, including who will control Iraq's airspace and how many military bases the U.S. can utilize. President Bush has expressed a desire to conclude the agreement by July 31. Zebari indicated that there was still a lot of work to be done on the pact when he characterized the U.S. position as "we can keep our military presence in any country, without a legal framework."

Separately, the U.S. military acknowledged that two Iraqi civilians were killed and nine wounded in southern Baghdad early Wednesday when a 4th Infantry Division 1st Brigade Combat Unit returned fire after insurgents launched rockets at American forces from the West Rashid district. Claiming self-defense, Col. Ted Martin of the 1st Brigade said it was "regrettable when the enemy chooses to use a neighborhood as a battleground." He said his unit would investigate the incident "and will make restitution for any damage or injury caused by our actions."

In Maysan province in southern Iraq, where Iraqi security forces have been conducting operations for about two weeks, an arrest warrant was issued for the provincial governor, Adil Mhodir. Although Iraqi soldiers raided his home, the governor hasn't yet been arrested; 30 of his security guard were detained.

The offensive, after similar maneuvers since March in Basra in the south and later in Baghdad's Sadr City district, is an effort by Maliki's government to exert its authority over the militia and other forces controlled by anti-occupation cleric Muqtada al Sadr. The Maysan governor and his security men are followers of the cleric.