BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said Monday that an agreement on the future of U.S. forces in Iraq must include a firm withdrawal date and that Iraq wants them out of the country by the end of 2011.
It was the first time Maliki explicitly demanded a fixed deadline for the departure of all U.S. troops from Iraq. His words appeared to rule out the presence of any U.S. military advisors, special forces and air support after the withdrawal date.
The current draft of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, details of which had previously been reported, outlines a conditional timeline of 2011 for U.S. combat troops to be out of Iraq. However, it leaves the door open for the U.S. military to stay on in a noncombat role.
The hardened position came after last week's visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Iraq, where she met with Maliki in hopes of clearing obstacles to an agreement. But officials familiar with the talks say that the prime minister remains undecided about whether he even wants a deal.
After their meeting, the agreement was supposed to be reviewed by Maliki, Iraq's three-member presidency council and Kurdistan regional President Massoud Barzani. However, the group has yet to convene to review the text.
Speaking before a gathering of Shiite Muslim tribesmen, Maliki said that negotiations with U.S. officials were still ongoing, but made it clear he was opposed to a timeline based on conditions on the ground. He said the only agreement acceptable to Iraq was one that guaranteed it "full sovereignty."
"There is . . . agreement between the two sides that there will not be any foreign soldiers in Iraq after 2011," he said.
In Crawford, Texas, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said: "Any decisions on troops will be based on the conditions on the ground in Iraq. That has always been our position. It continues to be our position.
"There is no agreement until there's an agreement signed," he added. "There are discussions that continue in Baghdad."
In July, Maliki told Der Spiegel magazine that he believed Democratic Party presidential candidate Barack Obama's plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq in 16 months was a realistic time frame, with slight changes. After the remarks stirred controversy, Maliki's spokesman clarified that, if security continued to improve, the Iraqi government hoped all U.S. troops would be out of Iraq by the end of 2010.
U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have been haggling for months over the security agreement, which must be approved by Iraq's parliament by the end of the year. That is when the United Nations mandate governing the presence of U.S. forces here expires. If an agreement is not reached, U.S. forces would, in effect, be left with no legal standing to be in Iraq.
But the issues of a withdrawal deadline and immunity for U.S. forces accused of crimes in Iraq have been major sticking points, and some Iraqi officials close to the negotiations have made it clear that the two sides remain deeply divided on those topics.
On Monday, Maliki ruled out "open immunity" for foreign troops, suggesting that a deal was in the works that would grant immunity under certain conditions.
According to Iraqi and Western officials familiar with the talks, Maliki is under pressure from those within his ruling Shiite Muslim coalition and even inside his own circle of advisors not to endorse an agreement, based on the belief that Iraq is strong enough militarily that it no longer needs the Americans. Maliki, who is intensely nationalistic, does not want to be branded an agent of the Americans, they said.
He is under pressure from Iran, as well as the grand ayatollahs in Iraq's Shiite shrine city of Najaf, who could come out against an agreement if they feel it infringes on Iraq's sovereignty. At a time when he needs political cover, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest Shiite party in his alliance, is also deeply divided on ties with the Americans.
Those officials familiar with the talks stressed that time was running out. Most were skeptical that Iraq and the U.S. would approach the United Nations for an extension of the American security mandate in Iraq after previously stating that 2008 should be its last year. But they expected that some compromise mechanism would still be found to resolve differences.
In part, those officials faulted American missteps at the beginning for creating the current situation, specifically sending a technical team that had negotiated previous status of forces agreements around the world to lead the talks here last spring.
The original team, which was eventually pulled, called for an agreement that granted the Americans the right to launch military operations without the permission of the Iraqi government and gave soldiers and contractors complete immunity from Iraqi law, those officials said. The team's negotiating stance triggered a popular backlash after Shiite politicians leaked its demands.
Times staff writers Caesar Ahmed and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.
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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said Monday that his government wants foreign troops out of the country by the end of 2011. Here is a table, by country, of coalition forces still in Iraq:
United States 140,000
South Korea 933
El Salvador 200
Czech Republic 96
Note: Many figures are rounded or estimated at the end of May 2008.
Source: Reuters news service