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WASHINGTON — Iraq and the United States remain at loggerheads over whether any U.S. troops who stay there next year will be subject to local laws — and potentially to politically motivated prosecutions — but experts predict it won’t ultimately derail security cooperation between the countries.

After months of preparations on both sides for a complete pullout by Dec. 31 of more than 40,000 remaining U.S. troops, the Iraqi government said in recent days that several thousand could stay on as military trainers. The condition, however, is that they lose the legal immunity they now enjoy. It is, an Iraqi government spokesman said this week, the primary dispute preventing an agreement.

On Thursday at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta shot back, saying U.S. troops would not remain in Iraq if they were to be subject to the Iraqi criminal justice system.

“I can say very clearly that any kind of U.S. presence demands that we protect and provide the appropriate immunity for our soldiers,” he said.

There are overwhelming practical reasons to demand that, said Anthony Cordesman, an expert on national security and intelligence with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Iraq ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, Cordesman said, a problem that extends to its police and judicial systems. The political and religious conflicts that divide the nation increase the risk for U.S. troops, he said. Some groups might bid for popular support among Iraqis, still smarting from well-documented civilian killings and cases of abuse by troops and contractors, by provoking violence and bringing malicious prosecutions.

“It’s very clear that [Shiite leader Muqtada] al-Sadr as well as some of the more hostile Sunni groups will try to take advantage of any weakness in this agreement to try and force the United States out,” he said. “For propaganda, they can make U.S. troops into political scapegoats whether or not there is immunity. But from the human viewpoint, we simply cannot send troops into harm’s way in that particular manner.”

Cordesman said the United States and Iraq might not ink a Status of Forces Agreement that explicitly gives troops immunity like the 2008 document now in effect, but there would at least be some agreement to effectively shield U.S. troops, while providing political cover for Iraqi leaders.

“For everyone who’s not a diplomat, this is a very serious issue and one way or another, we’re going to have an informal solution,” he said. “I don’t think this is really a dealbreaker, just one of many issues to resolve.”

Leaders on both sides should try to tone down the rhetoric, an expert on status of forces agreements said.

Of all the negotiations taking place between the United States and Iraq, the immunity issue is likely the one that resonates most with regular Iraqis and for U.S. troops, said Daniel Gallington, a retired Air Force officer who once sat on joint boards in Taiwan and Germany charged with reviewing cases of American troops charged with crimes in the local justice systems.

“Status of forces issues are very emotional ones for host countries,” said Gallington, now a defense analyst at the Potomac Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank. “As the character of the force starts to change and the elements of sovereignty begin returning to the host country, the traditional arguments start to prevail ... about categories of offenses and who has jurisdiction.”

The issues are complex, Gallington said, but “the bottom line is that they always get resolved and they always work toward a mutually acceptable agreement.”

Such has happened all over Europe and Asia, Gallington said, and similar agreements are likely to be worked out in Iraq as well, as a reduced number of U.S. troops settle in for what could be a long haul.

As Iraq’s justice system improves with U.S. help, Gallington said, it will eventually be appropriate for the country to begin assuming more responsibility over law enforcement pertaining to foreign troops, as is now the case in places such as Japan and Germany.

It may not be quick, he said.

“Over a long period of time, the implementation of the status of forces agreement becomes very professional and routine,” he said. “It ends up being far more civilized than when it began.”

Twitter: ChrisCarroll_

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