Iraqi officials said Thursday that they were close to finalizing a new security arrangement that would set out the goal of withdrawing all U.S. combat troops from the country, while stopping short of establishing a strict timetable for their departure.
The pact would outline a conditional time frame for Iraqi troops to take charge of the country and U.S. combat troops to be withdrawn, according to Iraqi officials familiar with the talks.
The Iraqis said the new arrangement would allow Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to claim that he has enshrined the principle of an American withdrawal, a key demand for a government eager to show independence from Washington while keeping the flexibility to extend the U.S. military presence if security deteriorates.
As long as the country remains stable, Maliki has said, he sees no need for U.S. combat forces to remain past 2010, roughly matching the timeline for a phased withdrawal proposed by Sen. Barack Obama. The Bush administration and Sen. John McCain have opposed committing to rigid deadlines, though the White House recently acknowledged a willingness to adhere to a “general time horizon” for Iraqi forces to take full control of security and for the number of U.S. troops to be reduced.
In brief comments Thursday at the White House, President Bush said “sustained progress” in Iraq will allow the military to cut the length of combat tours and possibly make further reductions in troop levels in the fall.
“The progress in Iraq has allowed us to continue our policy of ‘return on success,’ ” Bush said.
He repeated what the Pentagon had already announced: Troops deploying to Iraq beginning today will serve 12-month tours, rather than the 15 months they were expecting.
Maliki’s national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, said talks on the security accord were based on the premise of U.S. forces leaving Iraq, but “this time horizon is a planning tool, not a definitive schedule.”
A new deal is required because the current United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S.-led multinational force to operate in Iraq expires at the end of the year.
At a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the draft agreement would still allow U.S. forces to perform their mission, adding that the troop drawdown would proceed according to conditions on the ground rather than a timetable.
The White House had been pressing to conclude negotiations by the end of July. But talks foundered, with Iraqi officials accusing the administration of seeking to keep troops in Iraq indefinitely.
In June, Iraqi lawmakers rejected a draft agreement, saying that the United States was seeking at least 50 permanent military bases and infringing on their country’s sovereignty.
Negotiations got back on track after the White House ceded to Iraqi demands to set out some form of calendar.
The deal will map out a conditional time frame for Iraqi forces to take over greater security responsibilities and for Americans to gradually withdraw, said Haidar Abadi, a senior member of Maliki’s fundamentalist Islamic Dawa Party.
“The whole thing has been spun around,” Abadi said. “Before, it was a [status of forces agreement] presented as a long-term agreement, with some hope one day foreign troops will end their mandate.
“Now we are talking about when foreign forces are going to cease their operations.”
The new pact also will include a strategic framework governing diplomatic, economic and security relations between the two countries, and a protocol governing the legal status of U.S. troops.
Iraqi officials said there is agreement to provide immunity from Iraqi law to U.S. troops on their bases and those conducting missions.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the draft would give the military enough leeway to conduct operations, but cautioned that negotiations were still underway.
“I think we have to wait until those negotiations finish to really know . . . the details,” Mullen said.
Fuad Masoom, the leader of the Kurdish bloc in parliament, said the country’s main political leaders expected to review the latest draft within five days at their political council for national security, the body that rejected the earlier proposal.
Iraq saw the number of violent deaths drop in July, for a third straight month.
According to the ministries of health and interior, 465 people were killed in July -- 387 civilians and 78 Iraqi security forces. In June, 510 people died in violence; in May, 563 died.
Thirteen U.S. troops were killed in July, the lowest number of American deaths since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org. A total of 4,127 U.S. military personnel have died.
Parker reported from Baghdad and Spiegel from Washington. Times staff writers James Gerstenzang in Washington and Saif Hameed and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.