Iraq says no firm dates in U.S. troops deal

A draft agreement between the United States and Iraq contains no fixed dates for U.S. forces to withdraw, but Iraq would like combat troops out by the end of 2011, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said on Thursday.

"The draft does not contain definite dates," Dabbagh said.

He said Iraqi negotiators were proposing U.S. troops end patrols of Iraqi towns and villages by the middle of next year and U.S. combat troops leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

But he made clear those deadlines were not yet fixed, and represented the government's negotiating position, not an explicitly agreed text: "This is the Iraqi government's view and what the government wants."

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on Thursday to help seal the deal, a draft of which is being circulated among Iraqi politicians for approval.

She said the deal was "close", but poured cold water on reports that it was already agreed.

"We'll have agreement when we have agreement. So all of those stories in the newspapers about what the agreement says probably ought to be disregarded until we have an agreement," Rice told a news conference in Baghdad.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari also said the deal was "very close", and would include "time horizons" for U.S. withdrawal, but he did not refer to particular dates.

The long-awaited pact will allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq beyond the end of this year, when a U.N. Security Council mandate enacted after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 expires.

Replacing the U.N. mandate with a formal U.S.-Iraqi pact is seen as a milestone in Iraq's emergence as a sovereign state, giving Baghdad direct say over the presence of foreign troops on its soil for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

But the deal's terms are politically sensitive in both countries, with Maliki determined to show that the 144,000 U.S. troops will not stay longer than needed, and U.S. President George W. Bush keen to avoid a firm schedule for them to leave.

Dabbagh said the draft agreement envisions a flexible schedule for withdrawals based on conditions on the ground.

"There are dates which will depend on the situation on the ground and the decisions of the Iraqi government, according to security developments and according to the need of the Iraqis."

The White House said it hoped a deal would be reached soon.

"The president and every American wants to see American troops come home, but not until the job is done and there is more security, more political progress, and more economic progress inside Iraq," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

BACKLASH

Iraqi officials have spoken for weeks about prospective timelines that could be in a pact, such as the plan to remove U.S. troops from the streets next year. But it is not clear how explicit any such language will be in the final agreement.

Other issues to be tackled include immunity for U.S. troops from Iraqi law and the status of the 21,000 prisoners held in Iraq by American forces.

Iraqi leaders fear a nationalist backlash if the agreement appears to let the Americans stay too long or gives them overly broad powers. Anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr denounced both Rice's visit and the prospective pact.

"Today, Condoleezza Rice, the occupation foreign secretary, arrived in Iraq to try to put pressure on the government of Iraq to accept terms dictated by the occupation to sign this ominous treaty," said a statement read out by Sadr political adviser Liwa Smeism at the cleric's office in Najaf.

A commitment to withdraw combat troops in 2010 or 2011 would resemble the plan offered by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who wants them out by mid-2010.

The Bush administration and Republican candidate John McCain say troop reductions are likely but they do not want to commit to a firm timetable. The administration began speaking in July of "time horizons" and "aspirational goals" for withdrawal, AP reported.

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