By Phil Stewart
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Any agreement for U.S. troops to stay in Iraq beyond a year-end deadline for their withdrawal would require the Iraqi parliament to agree to grant American soldiers legal immunity, the top U.S. military officer said on Tuesday.
Immunity for American troops staying on in Iraq could complicate the already difficult wrangling for Iraq's fragile, multi-sectarian government, whose leaders are under pressure to decide whether some U.S. soldiers should stay in the country.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki says Iraq may need only trainers rather than U.S. troops, allowing him to bypass fractious negotiations with parliament. But U.S. officials say any training deal would likely involve American troops and require a lawmaker agreement on immunity.
"That kind of agreement, which would include privileges and immunities for American men and women in uniform, will need to go through the (parliament)," Admiral Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military chief, said when asked if a deal for U.S. troops to stay on would need lawmakers to approve immunity.
Iraq's political blocs were scheduled on Tuesday to debate the issue of a continued U.S. military presence. Maliki said this week he hoped they would reach an agreement soon to present the government's demands to Washington.
Keeping U.S. troops on Iraqi soil, eight years after the U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, is a sensitive issue that is testing the fragile power-sharing government consisting of Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs.
Mullen and other U.S. officials have said Iraqi leaders need to say soon whether they want some American troops to stay on before it becomes too late to amend the withdrawal plan.
"I believe they also understand that time is quickly running out for us to be able to consider any other course," Mullen said. "My government has made it clear that we would entertain a request for some troops to stay."
Violence has fallen sharply since the heights of Iraq's sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007, but insurgents and militias still carry out almost daily bombings and attacks. Maliki says Iraq's security forces can contain the threat, but some officials acknowledge gaps in their military capabilities.
Iraqi officials have said they are leaning toward signing agreements with civilian trainers and have rejected the idea that those specialists would have immunity in Iraq.
An Iraqi government spokesman was not immediately available to comment on Mullen's remarks.
IMMUNITY VS ABUSES
U.S. troops ended combat missions last August and the remaining 47,000 soldiers are engaged mainly in advising the Iraqi military and helping them in counter-terrorism operations.
Once the military withdrawal date passes, the State Department plans to use more than 5,000 contractors to protect the U.S. civilian-led mission to support Iraq's reconstruction.
The issue of immunity has been a delicate one in Iraq since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam and some U.S. troops and contractors have been accused of abuses.
In a 2007 shooting incident, five contractors working for Blackwater security firm were accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in a case that outraged Iraqis and strained ties between Baghdad and Washington.
Under the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority, private security contractors enjoyed legal immunity, but that right was removed for most private security contractors under the current U.S.-Iraqi security agreement which expires at the end of 2011.
Mullen also said Iran continued to interfere in Iraq's political process and arm militias who were carrying out attacks and rocket strikes on Iraqi soil, despite a recent drop in attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
"It is clear that Tehran seeks a weak Iraq," he said.
U.S. officials said recent actions by U.S. and Iraqi forces and by Iraqi politicians had stemmed a recent increase in attacks. Fourteen U.S. troops were killed in June, the highest number of U.S. casualties in Iraq since 2008.
(Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Gareth Jones)