Bolstered by recent Iraqi military successes, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki proposed Monday that negotiators include a timetable for the departure of U.S. troops in any agreement to continue the American presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year.
The suggestion, made during an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, appeared aimed at easing domestic fears that the deal would impinge on Iraqi sovereignty and clear the way for permanent American bases.
The Iraqi leader also recognizes that American opinion has turned against the war and believes his country should not wait for a decision to be made in Washington to pull out troops, according to lawmakers from his Islamic Dawa Party.
President Bush and Maliki have set a target date of July 31 to hammer out a blueprint for U.S.-Iraqi relations after the United Nations mandate for the presence of U.S.-led forces in Iraq expires at the end of the year.
The talks are focused on two accords. One would provide a framework for future diplomatic, economic and security relations. The other, known as a Status of Forces Agreement, would provide a legal basis for U.S. troops to remain in the country.
Negotiators from both sides have said that progress is being made but that outstanding differences might make it impossible to complete a comprehensive Status of Forces Agreement in time to put it into effect by the end of the year. A number of possible bridging measures are being explored.
“The current orientation [of the talks] is to reach a memorandum of understanding either to withdraw the forces, or to set a timetable for their withdrawal,” Maliki’s office quoted him as saying in response to questions from Arab ambassadors in Abu Dhabi.
Many Iraqis, including members of Maliki’s government, view a deal that allows for a long-term American military presence as a surrender of sovereignty to an occupying force. Setting a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops could ease those fears.
Followers of influential Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, who pulled his representatives out of Maliki’s Cabinet last year over the government’s refusal to set such a timetable, welcomed Monday’s statement.
“We have been demanding to set a timetable for the withdrawal of those forces . . . since the beginning,” said Felah Shanshal, one of the cleric’s loyalists in parliament. “It would be wonderful if that could be achieved.”
The security agreement is also a contentious issue in Washington, where Democrats have accused Bush of trying to commit the U.S. to a long-term presence in Iraq before he leaves office in January. White House officials have said the agreement will not set force levels or establish permanent bases in Iraq.
Points of friction between the U.S. and Iraq include the legal status of foreign personnel. American officials have dropped a demand for immunity from prosecution for private contractors working for the U.S. government, but have said that they will not allow American service personnel to be tried in Iraqi courts.
The latter is a touchy subject for Maliki, who was angered by two recent shootings by U.S. forces. In one instance, American troops searching for a suspect in Karbala province killed a security guard who was a distant relative of Maliki. In the other, a bank manager and two female employees were killed on their way to work at Baghdad’s international airport.
The U.S. military maintains that the shootings were justified.
Haider Abadi, a Dawa member and political insider, said Maliki did not believe Iraqis should be pressured into making long-term arrangements with an outgoing administration.
“No one can guess which way U.S. policy will go after the election,” he said in a telephone interview. “We cannot go on discussing an agreement that may never materialize. There is too much at stake.”
Abadi said the Iraqi military’s recent successes against militants in the cities of Basra, Amarah and Mosul and in Baghdad’s Sadr City district had inspired new confidence in the security forces.
“Are we going to be at the mercy of some sort of decision in the White House that we have no control over?” he asked.
Abadi said the government was proposing that the U.S. finish handing over responsibility for security in all 18 provinces within six months and pull out most of its troops in two to three years. Nine of the provinces are already under Iraqi control.
According to Abadi, U.S. negotiators have been receptive to the idea, but have proposed a five-year timeline.
U.S. Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen provided an upbeat assessment of security gains during a visit to Iraq on Monday, his fourth since becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October. But he would not be pinned down on how long it might take to consolidate those gains, after the last of five additional U.S. brigades deployed to Iraq last year returns home this month.
“From all I see, the security conditions are holding, the level of violence is down; we’re down to a level that we haven’t seen in over four years,” Mullen was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “That, then, ties into decisions to be made later this year about the level of forces. So I hope we can continue the drawdown” after a late-summer pause.
Underscoring the remaining threat, a female suicide bomber blew herself up at a market northeast of Baghdad on Monday, killing nine people and injuring 12, police said. The attack occurred in Baqubah, capital of Diyala province.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed and a special correspondent contributed to this report.