BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq and the United States have agreed that all U.S. troops will leave by the end of 2011, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday, but Washington said no final deal had been reached.
“There is an agreement actually reached, reached between the two parties on a fixed date, which is the end of 2011, to end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil,” Maliki said in a speech to tribal leaders in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
“An open time limit is not acceptable in any security deal that governs the presence of the international forces,” he said.
Maliki’s remarks were the most explicit statement yet that the increasingly assertive Iraqi government expects the U.S. presence to end in three years as part of a deal between Washington and Baghdad to allow them to stay beyond this year.
Previously, Iraqi officials have said they want U.S. troops to end patrols of Iraqi towns and villages by the middle of next year and combat troops to leave Iraq by 2011, but Washington has been reluctant to embrace a firm deadline for all troops to go.
A bilateral pact is needed to replace a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, which has formed the legal basis for the American troop presence ever since but expires at the end of this year.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said a draft agreement had been prepared but it needed to “go through a number of levers in the Iraqi political system before we actually have an agreement from the Iraqi side.”
“Until we have a deal, we don’t have a deal,” he said. U.S. officials declined to comment on Maliki’s 2011 withdrawal date.
Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government has been increasingly assertive in pushing for a deadline for the roughly 144,000 U.S. troops to leave Iraq, especially since an Iraqi-led crackdown on Shi’ite militias this year proved a success.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on a visit to Baghdad last week that a deal was close, but not yet final.
Iraqi officials say a draft agreement was completed last week and must now be circulated to political leaders for approval before it can be submitted to parliament next month.
The talks come as violence has dropped to levels not seen in Iraq since 2004, a welcome change that U.S. officials attribute to the 30,000 extra troops President George W. Bush sent to Iraq last year and to Sunni tribal leaders’ decision to back security efforts.
Maliki said any deal would need to include a “specific date, not an open one” for withdrawal.
He also said the pact would not grant anyone absolute immunity from Iraqi law. Washington wants to protect its soldiers from being tried in Iraqi courts, terms it also requires in many other countries where it has bases.
“We will not accept to put the lives of our sons on the line by guaranteeing absolute immunity for anybody, whether Iraqis or foreigners,” Maliki said. “The sanctity of Iraqi blood should be respected.”
He said U.S. military operations would be prohibited “without the approval of the Iraqi government and American forces,” a sign Iraq wants more say over U.S. operations.
Speaking in Texas, where Bush is vacationing, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Washington was optimistic it could agree with Baghdad on “flexible goals” for U.S. troops to return “based on conditions on the ground”.
A commitment to withdraw all troops would resemble the plan offered by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who proposes withdrawing combat troops by mid-2010.
Republican contender John McCain says he also believes withdrawals are likely in coming years, but that it would be dangerous to commit in advance to a firm timetable.