Friday, August 8, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) | Iraq and the U.S. are near an agreement on all American combat troops leaving Iraq by October 2010, with the last soldiers out three years after that, two Iraqi officials said Thursday. U.S. officials, however, insisted no dates had been agreed upon.

The proposed agreement calls for Americans to hand over parts of Baghdad’s Green Zone - where the U.S. Embassy is located - to the Iraqis by the end of this year. It would also remove U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by June 30, according to the two senior officials, both close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and familiar with the negotiations.

The officials, who spoke separately on the condition of anonymity because the talks are ongoing, said all U.S. combat troops would leave Iraq by October 2010, with the remaining support personnel out “around 2013.” The schedule could be amended if both sides agree - a face-saving escape clause that would extend the presence of U.S. forces if security conditions warrant it.

U.S. acceptance - even tentatively - of a specific timeline would represent a dramatic reversal of American policy in place since the war began in March 2003.

Both Iraqi and American officials agreed that the deal is not final and that a major unresolved issue is the U.S. demand for immunity for U.S. soldiers from prosecution under Iraqi law.

Throughout the conflict, President Bush steadfastly refused to accept any timetable for bringing U.S. troops home. Last month, however, Mr. Bush and Mr. al-Maliki agreed to set a “general time horizon” for ending the U.S. mission.

Mr. Bush’s shift to a timeline was seen as a move to speed agreement on a security pact governing the U.S. military presence in Iraq after the U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad declined to comment on details of the talks. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said the negotiations were taking place “in a constructive spirit” based on respect for Iraqi sovereignty.

In Washington, U.S. officials acknowledged that some progress has been made on the timelines for troop withdrawals but that the immunity issue remained a huge problem. One senior U.S. official close to the discussion said no dates have been agreed upon.

They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations have not been finished.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mr. al-Maliki had a long and “very difficult” phone conversation about the situation on Wednesday during which she pressed the Iraqi leader for more flexibility, particularly on immunity, one U.S. senior official said.

In London, Britain’s defense ministry said it is also in talks with Iraq’s government over the role of British troops after the U.N. mandate runs out. Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently said that early next year Britain will reduce its troops in Iraq, now at about 4,100, and that Britain’s role in the country will change fundamentally.

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