American and Iraqi officials are close to a draft agreement to see U.S. forces conditionally withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, though both sides warned Thursday that political hurdles to a final settlement remain.
The current version of the deal would set a conditional time frame for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities by next June and for combat troops to leave the country two years later.
But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in Baghdad’s fortress-like Green Zone, downplayed expectations that approval of an agreement was imminent.
“We’ll have agreement when we have agreement,” Rice told reporters, addressing speculation that a deal was near.
Rice and Maliki huddled for 2 1/2 hours, trying to iron out differences in the pact, which would govern the presence of U.S. forces here after their United Nations mandate expires in December.
Iraq’s foreign minister warned that Iraqi politicians must still approve any deal, cautioning that previous drafts had been touted as complete, only for one side or the other to find fault.
“We’ve been through this before, but we’ve never been this close,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Times.
Zebari said the draft would be reviewed by the prime minister and other top government leaders tonight or during the weekend.
If senior leaders endorse the deal, it would go before the political council for national security and then to parliament for a final vote, Zebari said. In the past, items endorsed by senior leaders, including a national oil law, have never been voted on in parliament or have been delayed for months.
An aide to Maliki said that the differences with the U.S. were minor and that they hoped to close the deal before the end of the year.
“They tried to resolve some issues,” the aide said. “They tried to find some compromise formula to some points. It’s too early to say they reached an agreement on all issues.”
A senior member of Maliki’s ruling coalition, Shiite lawmaker Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir, said the sides had still not agreed on all the issues.
“I believe they are struggling,” he said. “It is thorny, but there is a little progress.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials had aimed to reach a deal by the end of July.
Saghir said that the Americans wanted their forces to stay one year more than the Iraqis wanted. Maliki has publicly favored a withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2010, a timeline for withdrawal that roughly corresponds with that proposed by Sen. Barack Obama.
The Bush administration and Sen. John McCain have voiced opposition to rigid deadlines, although the White House has acknowledged a willingness to OK a “general time horizon” for Iraqi forces to take full control of security and for U.S. troop strength to be reduced if conditions remain relatively stable.
Negotiators have also been debating whether noncombat units would stay after the withdrawal date, Saghir said. The Americans believe that Iraq will need U.S. military advisors, air support and special forces after most troops leave the country.
The two sides also are still bargaining over whether American soldiers can be tried in Iraqi courts, Saghir said.
Maliki’s bottom line remains unknown. Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said the danger for the prime minister is being seen by the public as endorsing an agreement that the Americans want.
“He is reluctant to pass it because he cares about his own popularity with the population. He tells his people and party that it should be one way. Maybe he tells Rice another thing,” Othman said.
Populist anti-American sentiment that has influenced the negotiations was on display Thursday as radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr’s followers denounced Rice’s visit and held demonstrations. The head of Sadr’s political office, Liwa Sumaysim, warned that the movement would never accept any conditional timeline for a troop withdrawal.
In the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, several hundred demonstrators shouted, “No, no to the agreement. . . . Down with Zionism,” and carried a banner that read, “We denounce the visit of mistress of evil Condoleezza Rice to Iraq.”
Also Thursday, unknown gunmen in three or four GMC sport utility vehicles opened fire near central Baghdad’s Bab al Sharji market, killing one civilian. A police official said they were private security contractors, but another disagreed.
Foreign security contractors’ immunity from Iraqi courts has been one of the more contentious issues for the Iraqi government in negotiating a long-term agreement with the Americans.
Times staff writers Tina Susman and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.
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