Iraq warned on Wednesday it would not be bullied into signing a security pact with the United States despite US leaders warning of potentially dire consequences if it failed to approve the deal.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh lashed out at US military chief Admiral Michael Mullen for saying that Baghdad risked significant losses if an agreement is not concluded to keep American forces in the country beyond 2008.
"It is not correct to force Iraqis into making a choice and it is not appropriate to talk with the Iraqis in this way," Dabbagh said.
To the apparent frustration of the Americans, the Iraqi cabinet decided on Tuesday to seek changes in the pact after months of tough negotiations between Baghdad and Washington.
The draft deal calls for a withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 and includes US concessions on jurisdiction over its troops accused of "serious crimes" while off duty or off base.
But the agreement has ignited fierce debate in Iraq, with radical anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr leading a wave of protests.
On Tuesday, Mullen said if Baghdad delayed signing the deal beyond the December 31 expiry of the current UN mandate governing the presence of foreign troops, its forces "will not be ready to provide for their security."
"And in that regard there is great potential for losses of significant consequence."
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates echoed Mullen, saying: "The consequences of not having a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) and of not having a renewed UN authorisation are pretty dramatic in terms of consequences for our actions."
And on Wednesday, the White House again insisted there was limited scope for any changes in the deal.
Spokeswoman Dana Perino said "the door wasn't slammed shut but it's pretty much closed in our opinion." Negotiators would have "a very high bar for them to clear" if there were to be any changes at this stage, she added.
In a strongly worded statement, Dabbagh said the government was "deeply concerned" by Mullen's remarks.
"Such a statement is not welcomed by Iraq. All Iraqis and their political entities are aware of their responsibilities and are assessing whether to sign the deal or not in a way that it is suitable to them."
Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Qassim Atta also insisted that domestic forces were ready to handle security nationwide.
"The security forces are ready since their numbers have increased and following the improvement in their abilities," he told a news conference.
"They are already controlling 11 provinces and soon we will take over the rest of the provinces."
Senior Shiite lawmaker Abbas al-Bayati said such comments by Washington's leaders were provocative.
"Mullen's remark is an attempt to pressure the Iraqi side, but we will not be subjected to such tactics because our reservations are linked to the sovereignty and national interest of Iraq," he told AFP.
"The American side should be more flexible because if they really want to pass this agreement, they should first stop launching such warnings which provoke Iraqis."
At Tuesday's cabinet meeting, some ministers opposed a clause that allows Iraq to ask US forces to stay beyond 2011 if required for training local troops.
"What has been agreed in the pact has made some people feel this could lead to a long-term presence of American troops," Science and Technology Minister Raed Jahed Fahmi told AFP.
Fahmi said there were also concerns over the definition of what would constitute "serious crimes" committed by American personnel for which they can be prosecuted under Iraqi law.
"We have to be precise on what these crimes could be. For example, if the Americans kill someone by mistake, will it be included in this? Also inside the base can they do whatever they want with the Iraqis?"
According to the draft, crimes committed by American personnel inside their bases and while on duty will be under US jurisdiction.