Associated Press

Baghdad, March 13:

In less than four months, a sovereign Iraqi government will have authority to impose restrictions on US troops, or even request that they leave. US military officials here, who are already planning for American forces to be in Iraq through 2005, insist the latter option won’t happen. “We intend to stay here as invited guests as long as we are needed, as long as we are wanted, and as long as we are invited,” Brig Gen Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations chief, said.

US officials want to make sure American forces are free to continue to kill insurgents, interrogate prisoners and command Iraq’s new security forces. But the rules that troops follow after the June 30 handover have yet to be written, and Iraq’s government will have a say.

Iraq’s transitional government is expected to “invite” the US military to stay in control of Iraq’s security, technically ending America’s status as occupier. US and British leaders say they expect few practical aspects of the occupation to change right away.

Military control will probably fall under a US-headed joint command. Officials said plans are afoot to put an American four-star general at the head of the command, with a three-star general running operations. The current top US commander in Iraq, Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, is a three-star general. “That is the scheme which is being planned at the moment,” a senior British official said.Iraq’s US-picked Governing Council agrees that foreign troops will be needed to secure Iraq for the near future, said Hamed al-Bayati, a spokesman for council member Abdel Aziz al-Hakim.

But no treaty guarantees this hoped-for state of affairs. There is no Iraqi government to approve it.“At this point, we’d be negotiating with ourselves, because we are the government,” said a top US military official in Baghdad.