American troops who remain in Iraq after the end of this year must be granted immunity from local prosecution, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.
Immunity has emerged at the most contentious issue as Baghdad and Washington seek to hammer out an agreement on whether to keep a small American training force in Iraq after this year's troop drawdown.
Officials say less than 5,000 advisers would likely remain. Iraqis don't want any foreigners to be exempt from local laws. But for the U.S., the lack of immunity is a deal-breaker.
Panetta spoke after a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels dedicated mainly to operations in Libya and Afghanistan.
"I can say very clearly that any kind of U.S. presence (in Iraq) demands that we protect and provide the appropriate immunity for our soldiers," Panetta said.
In addition to continuing to train Iraqi forces, Washington wants to keep a residual military presence in Iraq to counter growing Iranian influence throughout the Gulf region.
Nearby Bahrain's pro-Western monarchy has blamed Iran for the unrest among the country's majority Shiite population. And Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which deployed troops to Bahrain to crush the protests, has also faced unrest in the country's Shiite-dominated eastern region facing Iran.
Many Iraqis still harbor bitterness toward Americans over the years when they feared being shot at by U.S. troops in passing convoys or as they approached checkpoints. The 2006 rape and shooting death of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl in the town of Mahmoudiya is one of the most heinous examples of crimes committed by American troops that Iraqis wish could have been prosecuted in their own courtrooms.
Private security contractors lost their immunity after incidents such as the 2007 shooting at Nisoor Square in Baghdad by Blackwater guards that left 17 Iraqis dead.
"These issues are still very much in negotiations," Panetta said.