BAGHDAD (AP) -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Monday that the government is ready to compromise to reach a security accord with the United States because Iraq still needs American troops despite the drop in violence.
In an interview with The Associated Press, al-Maliki said neither he nor Iraq's parliament will accept any pact that fails to serve the country's national interests. A poorly constructed plan would provoke so much discord in Iraq that it could threaten his government's survival, he said.
Al-Maliki said, however, that he is firmly committed to reaching an accord that would allow U.S. troops to remain in the country beyond next year.
"We regard negotiating and reaching such an agreement as a national endeavor, a national mission, a historic one. It is a very important agreement that involves the stability and the security of the country and the existence of foreign troops. It has a historic dimension," al-Maliki said.
The Iraqi prime minister spoke at length about the difficulty he faces in trying to negotiate the accord that would set the terms for the U.S. presence in Iraq for years to come. Supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr oppose the accord, arguing U.S. forces should leave Iraq as soon as possible. Neighboring Iran also has been speaking out vociferously against a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq.
"Pressures are coming from east and west and north and south, but we are determined to rise above all these difficulties and pressures because we want this agreement to be passed," al-Maliki said, "and we will go ahead despite all that is being said."
The prime minister also noted with gratitude the high cost paid by American taxpayers, the U.S. military and the forces of other coalition members to secure Iraq's freedom over the past five years.
"We appreciate and we respect their sacrifices," he said of the U.S. troops killed, adding that their deaths would act as a bridge between the two countries.
Answering questions in his office in Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone, in an ornate room once used by Saddam Hussein's son Odai, al-Maliki said a compromise was near on the thorny issue of legal jurisdiction over U.S. forces. He said it would involve an offer of limited immunity for American forces.
"We have proposed that the legal jurisdiction would be ... with the Americans ... when the troops are performing military operations," he explained.
"When they are not performing a military operation, they are outside their camps, the legal jurisdiction would be in the hands of the Iraqi judiciary."
He added: "I think we are getting near to a compromise on this issue. I think the atmosphere is positive and once we manage to find a solution for this issue, other issues will be easy to deal with."
He said the deal has been slowed by electoral politics in the United States and also in Iraq, where provincial elections are due to take place by Jan. 31.
"Unfortunately, the negotiations were held in an atmosphere that is exhausted with the election debate, both in America and also to a certain extent here. You know, sometimes the election debate and the electoral campaigns can sometimes move away from objectivity," he said.
If the talks fail, or if parliament eventually refused to approve the accord, the U.S. fallback likely would be to seek a resolution at the U.N. Security Council authorizing a renewal of the mandate for coalition troops to operate in Iraq. The current U.N. mandate expires Dec. 31.
But al-Maliki said his government would oppose another U.N. resolution because it would infringe on Iraqi sovereignty.
He also said new tensions between Russia and the United States over last month's Russia-Georgia war would complicate any U.S. attempt to get Security Council approval for an extended mandate.
"If we don't reach an agreement by the 1st of January 2009, the (U.S.) troops will have to remain in their bases," al-Maliki said, "and then there should be a plan for a quick withdrawal.
"This would not be in the interests of Iraq nor in the interests of the United States. Our need for coalition forces is decreasing - but it still exists," he said.
Al-Maliki said Americans may not be fully aware of the accomplishments brought about by the U.S. intervention in Iraq.
He listed those as - "Establishing a national government following a dictatorship and spreading freedoms inside Iraq after decades of oppression; establishing a constitutional structure inside the country; creating a friendly people toward the United States - the people of Iraq; and probably the most important achievement was to defeat the extremists from al-Qaida and the militias, people who threaten humanity in general. And America has seen the results of what happens when those people are not confronted."
"Unfortunately Iraq cannot solve America's economic problems, but what Iraq can do is take up more responsibility security-wise here inside Iraq," al-Maliki said.
"And I have told the Americans repeatedly that we are ready to take up responsibility here in Iraq so there are less losses and a decreased number of American lives lost," he said.
© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved