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Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said yesterday that he is negotiating a deal with Washington that will provide for only a short-term US troop presence beyond this year and will also set a timetable for a full withdrawal.
It was the first time that Iraq had made a pullout deadline a condition for a promised new agreement with the United States setting the basis for a troop presence into 2009.
"The direction we are taking is to have a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or to have a timetable for their withdrawal," a statement from Maliki's office quoted him as telling Arab ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates."The negotiations are still continuing with the American side, but in any case the basis for the agreement will be respect for the sovereignty of Iraq," he added.
It was the first time that the Shia prime minister had specifically demanded a timetable for a US withdrawal, something that President George W. Bush has repeatedly refused to set.
Bush and Maliki agreed in principle last November to sign a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq by the end of July to set the basis for a US troop presence beyond December this year when the UN mandate runs out.
But discussions appeared to be deadlocked last month amid strong opposition from Iraqi politicians both Sunni and Shia, with some Shia leaders denouncing the proposed agreement as "eternal slavery."
Shia radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who has a broad popular base among the Shia poor in cities across central and southern Iraq, has been particularly outspoken in his demands for a US withdrawal timetable.
Iraqi politicians have not only bristled at the duration of any continuing defence pact with the United States. They have also expressed reservations about how many bases Washington should retain, what powers the US military should continue to hold to detain Iraqi civilians, and what immunity US troops should have from US law.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said that Washington has agreed to one key demand from Baghdad, the scrapping of immunity from prosecution in Iraq of the tens of thousands of foreign security contractors operating in the country.
Since the 2003 invasion, foreign security firms have operated virtually outside the law, neither subject to the Iraq legal system nor to US military tribunals -- an exemption, which has been a persistent source of outrage to ordinary Iraqis.
Last Wednesday, Zebari said if the new US security pact were not finalised by July 31, there were two options for Iraq.