Iraq's Foreign Minister Upbeat on Security Deal With U.S.

Iraq's foreign minister on Wednesday said prospects for a new security agreement with the United States had brightened because of U.S. flexibility on the terms.

Hoshyar Zebari gave the optimistic assessment to reporters after meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Iraq is seeking a larger role in the agreement, which is designed to establish a legal framework for U.S. military operations in the country after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year. The deadline for coming to term is July 31.

"We have said the agrement must be transparent and not a secret one," Zebari said after seeing Rice, who made no statement.

"There is more flexibility on the U.S. side to reach an agreement that is acceptable both for the U.S. and for us," he said.

On the U.S. side, Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman, said that concluding an agreement requires flexibility on both sides.

Casey said the United States was not seeking permanent bases in Iraq. "We are not doing anything that impinges on the sovereignty of Iraq," he said.

"It is a negotiation that is making progress," he said, declining to provide details.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, asked President Bush not to include in the agreement any commitment to defend Iraq.

Instead, Voinovich said, the focus should be on efforts to bring U.S. forces home.

A member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the senator said, "We should not promise new commitments, on a deadline, without a clear understanding on each side about what that means."

And Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told Bush in a letter on Wednesday that he was concerned the agreement might put American troops at risk, especially if U.S. military operations were subject to Iraqi approval.

In contention has been the number of bases the United States would maintain in in the country and whether the U.S. military would retain the power to arrest Iraqi civilians and keep them in U.S. detention facilities.

Speaking in Arabic, Zebari said the United States had offered "options to overcome difficulties," but he provided no details.