UNITED NATIONS, With a year-end deadline for the pullout of U.S. troops looming, Iraq's foreign minister said Tuesday he believes there will be an agreement with the United States to train his country's military and talks are already under way in Baghdad.
"We're looking for October for these talks to move forward," Hoshyar Zebari said.
The Obama administration is considering 3,000 to 5,000 troops for an Iraqi training mission, according to Washington officials familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information. One Iraqi lawmaker close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Baghdad may ask only for about 2,500 forces.
"I think we will get an agreement on training," Zebari said, but he would not discuss numbers and stressed that training could take place both outside and inside Iraq.
"How many trainers will remain in Iraq is not that important," he said. "It's the commitment that is very important."
Regardless, Zebari said, there will be no new status of forces or security agreement with the Americans.
"The political conditions in Iraq have changed. That's why it's difficult," he said.
Any move that leaves U.S. forces in the country past the end of the year has been vigorously opposed by anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia was responsible for much of the violence in the country when it was consumed in a near civil war in 2005 and 2006. Al-Sadr has threatened a resumption of violence if the U.S. troops remain into 2012.
"We reject even the staying of trainers," Sadrist lawmaker Mushraq Naji said last week. "Our stance is clear and that all U.S. troops should leave. Negotiations to keep them here run against the will of the Iraqi people."
Zebari said the government has support from most political leaders for the talks with the Americans on training mission arrangements because the country doesn't have the military expertise to protect its shores and oil terminals, control its airspace and air defenses, "and even the land forces need" training.
But he said the government must line up support in parliament for the training mission, as it did to win approval for the current U.S. status of forces agreement.
The foreign minister was interviewed hours after officials in Baghdad announced that Iraq had signed an estimated $3 billion deal to buy 18 fighter jets from the United States. The F-16s aren't expected to arrive in Iraq until next fall at the earliest, and more likely not until 2013 which means U.S. forces could still be asked to patrol the country's skies.
Zebari said the importance of the deal is "for the world to know that Iraq is an ally of the United States in the region."
Asked about protecting Iraq's airspace before the planes arrive and Iraqi pilots are trained, Zebari said the no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991-92 was controlled by just six American officers who were capable "of deterring the wrath" of Saddam Hussein's army.
He said Iraqi airspace can also be protected by technology, and from U.S. airbases in the region. That was done when the Americans were ensuring adherence to the no-fly zones in northern and southern Iraq from bases in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey, he said.
In the wide-ranging interview, Zebari said the decision on whether some U.S. troops should be kept in disputed areas in northern Iraq "will depend on the outcome of the Iraqi government talks on the training issues."
He also said "there is a new urgency" by all parties to get a law passed quickly on the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth among the federal government and the country's religious and ethnic populations. The dispute especially centers on a three-way impasse over political control of the Kirkuk area among the country's Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen. Kirkuk sits above Iraq's main northern oil fields.
Various proposals are being presented to parliament, Zebari said, adding that the one the Kurds and the federal government agree on is the 2007 version of the law in which the government would control most oil and gas from existing fields but future discoveries would be managed jointly by Baghdad and the region.
Looking at the Mideast today, Zebari said, "I personally strongly believe that the Arab Spring would not have been possible with Saddam Hussein in power."
He said Iraq has a lot to offer to countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that are going through political transformation after their uprisings against authoritarian rulers.
"Each and every one of them has to go through the same stages that we've been through," he said. "And we see the tensions, we see the difficulties of embracing a new order. ... Our system, our democracy is not tidy, it's not perfect, it's clumsy, it's uneven and so on. But really the structures are there to resolve problems."