By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday played down an apparent split with Iraq over legal protections for U.S. troops at the heart of talks on keeping them in the country beyond a year-end deadline for their withdrawal.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's shaky coalition government is in negotiations with the United States to keep some of the roughly 43,000 U.S. forces in the country as military trainers, amid concerns about security gaps once American forces leave.
Maliki on Tuesday won more backing from the political blocs in his government to negotiate a deal but without the possibility of granting American troops immunity if they commit crimes.
The U.S. military has previously described the issue of legal protections for troops as a potential deal breaker.
"The people who attended the meeting agreed there is no need to grant immunity," Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Ross Nuri Shawis said, reading a statement on Tuesday.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Captain John Kirby said the U.S. military was still reviewing the statement and declined to discuss how U.S. officials interpreted the comments. He stressed that U.S. officials were "pleased and encouraged that the discussions are ongoing."
"I don't think it's helpful or productive to carry on the negotiations through the press," Kirby said.
"But we'll ensure that our troops have the protections they need."
Admiral Mike Mullen, who last week stepped down as chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Baghdad in August that any agreement on a future training mission in Iraq would involve "privileges and immunities" for U.S. troops which would need to go through parliament.
But it has long been unclear whether Maliki would be able to secure such legal guarantees from parliament. Monday's statement appeared to reinforce prospects it might not happen.
The expiring U.S. pact with Iraq ensures Iraqi courts cannot try U.S. forces, unless the cases involve exceptional circumstances. That includes prosecution of major, premeditated crimes allegedly committed by off-duty U.S. forces who were outside U.S. bases at the time of the incident.
Any decision to strike a new agreement to extend U.S. troops is tricky. The political bloc of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr openly opposes a U.S. presence and Sadr has threatened to escalate protests and military resistance if troops stay.
For U.S. President Barack Obama, who opposed the Iraq war as a candidate and repeatedly promised to bring all U.S. forces home from Iraq, any decision to keep U.S. forces there could upset some elements of his Democratic base. Still, his administration is considering options including keeping as few as 3,000 troops in the country.
Violence in Iraq is down considerably since the height of sectarian killings in 2006-2007 but security remains precarious. Bombings, attacks and assassinations still occur daily.
Iraqi and U.S. officials agree that local armed forces are able to contain a stubborn but weakened insurgency, but they say Iraq needs trainers to help the military fill some of its capability gaps, especially in maritime and air defense.
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami in Baghdad; editing by Mohammad Zargham)