- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 9, 2008

A deal that would establish a timeline for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraq is not as close as recent reports would indicate, a senior U.S. official said Friday.

“We don’t have a deal yet,” the official from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said.

“Every time it looks like it’s in shape, it takes another twist and turn,” the official said on the condition of anonymity because the discussions are ongoing. “We’ve been making a lot of progress lately, and we’re hopeful we’ll come to a complete agreement soon. We certainly aren’t there yet.”

The official said both sides are eager to strike a deal, but the talks are in “constant flux.”

In recent weeks, Iraqi officials have suggested that a deal is imminent as the Bush administration, ceding to Iraqi demands, has backed away from prior opposition to a withdrawal timetable in an agreement.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the two sides were close to a deal that would pull all American combat troops from Iraq by October 2010.

The story, citing two anonymous Iraqi officials close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and familiar with the negotiations, said the proposed agreement would have the U.S. give up parts of Baghdad’s Green Zone by the end of this year, and remove U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by June.

At the White House, spokeswoman Dana Perino denied any imminent announcement on a troop withdrawal agreement.

Both sides are rushing to seal a deal before a key U.N. mandate governing foreign troop presence in Iraq expires Dec. 31.

Failing to reach a deal, the U.S. will have to try to get a temporary extension of the U.N. mandate, which could face resistance from Russia and China on the U.N. Security Council.

Analysts, lawmakers and government officials say failing to strike a deal by year’s end could mean heavy risks for U.S. troops, leaving them without combat authority or protections from prosecution on Jan. 1

Undoubtedly hanging over the negotiations is a cease-fire from anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia has been cast by U.S. officials as the leading provocateur of sectarian violence in Iraq.

The cease-fire Mr. al-Sadr ordered a year ago and the increase in U.S. troop levels are credited for lowering violence in Iraq to a four-year low.

On Friday, Mr. al-Sadr ordered most of his militia members to disarm and promised to disband Mahdi Army itself if the U.S. troops begin withdrawal according to a set timetable, wire agencies reported from Baghdad.

“We feel there is a serious intention by the American forces for a withdrawal timetable at the very least,” al-Sadr spokesman Salah al-Ubaidi told Reuters news agency. “It should not be considered an end to the Mahdi Army, but it’s a halfway step to dissolving the Mahdi Army. If the U.S. began to implement a withdrawal timetable we shall complete the path to dissolution.”

He warned, however, that militiamen would resume hostilities in the face of broken U.S. promises.

Also Friday, a car bomb exploded at a market in the northern city of Tal Afar, killing 21 people and wounding dozens, Iraqi police said.

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