U.S. and Iraq near deal on withdrawal

BAGHDAD — The United States and Iraq are nearing completion of negotiations on a security agreement that would pull American troops out of Iraqi cities by next July and foresees all U.S. combat troops gone from Iraq by 2011, according to two Iraqi officials familiar with the negotiations.

”The tactical team is finished and it's a closed deal, but remember that we've been through this before and every time we close a deal it's reopened,“ said a senior official participating in the talks.

The official said that the deal, once completed, would be perhaps the most restrictive agreement the United States had with a country where it had troops.

”We've seen all the status of forces agreements with other countries,“ the official said. ”This is the best that the Americans have conceded.“

The official asked not to be identified because the deal is still being negotiated.

Another official, Ali al-Adeeb, a senior member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party, said he'd been briefed on the negotiations and he confirmed the details.

The Associated Press reported that under the agreement all U.S. combat troops would be out of Iraq by 2010.

The deal is still subject to approval by Maliki, other officials and the parliament, a process fraught with potential problems. The senior official said that Maliki already had expressed concern that the agreement wasn't strong enough, from the Iraqi perspective, on when Americans, including private contractors, would be subject to Iraqi law.

U.S. officials wouldn't discuss specifics. But a senior American official here confirmed that the negotiations are near completion, that the agreement now includes a ”time horizon“ for withdrawing American combat troops, and that specific dates have been discussed.

”The negotiators have pretty much wrapped up their work,“ said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. ”But we've seen things take unexpected twists and turns.“

The official said, ”There is a time horizon that we're discussing that involves various goals which are set together. There's a goal for when our combat brigades — the need for their presence here — will end.“

The U.S. agreement to set a specific date for the end of American operations in Iraqi cities and the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces marks a major turnaround for the Bush administration, which until last month had refused to discuss a timetable for withdrawal.

However, Iraqi officials were insistent that a date of some sort needed to be set. During Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's visit to Iraq last month, Maliki's national security adviser said that Iraqi officials hoped that U.S. combat troops would be gone by the end of 2010.

Iraqi officials used slightly different language this week to describe that part of the agreement, saying that the combat troops would be gone ”by 2011.“

Under the agreement, the United States would pull its troops from Iraqi cities and onto American bases in Iraq by June 30, 2009, according to the Iraqi officials familiar with the negotiations.

U.S. troops would be immune from Iraqi law while they were on their bases, but when moving outside the bases their actions would be subject to American and Iraqi military jurisdiction.

Even that provision may not be tough enough for Maliki, the senior Iraqi official said. ”Now they want to renegotiate this,“ the official said. ”We've worked really hard to come up with a reasonable formula.“

The negotiations came to a standstill about two months ago when Iraqis complained that what the Americans were offering was worse than the United Nations mandate that allowed them to operate in Iraq as an occupying force.

”Our willingness to talk about dates and goals has helped,“ the senior U.S. official said. ”It helped counter that propaganda that the U.S. wants permanent bases.“

But differences over immunity could scuttle the whole deal, the Iraqis said. One of the officials described immunity as a ”minefield“ and said each side was sticking by its position.

One official said U.S. negotiator David Satterfield told him that immunity for soldiers was a ”red line“ for the United States. The official said he replied that issue was ”a red line for us too.“

The official said the Iraqis were willing to grant immunity for actions committed on American bases and during combat operations — but not a blanket exemption from Iraqi law.

The Iraqis also want American forces to hand over any Iraqi they detain. The United States insists that detainees must be ”ready“ for handover, which the Iraqi officials assume means the Americans want to interrogate them first.

As the talks drag on, American officials said the Bush administration is losing patience with the Iraqis over the negotiations, which both sides had hoped to wrap up by the end of July.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and al-Maliki had a long and ”very difficult“ phone conversation about the situation on Wednesday during which she pressed the Iraqi leader for more flexibility particularly on immunity, one U.S. senior official said.

”The sovereignty issue is very big for the Iraqis and we understand that. But we are losing patience,“ the official said. ”The process needs to get moving and get moving quickly.“

The official could not say how long the call lasted but said it was ”not brief“ and ”tense at times.“

The Associated Press contributed to this report.