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Officials Say US, Iraq Finish Draft Security Deal

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) – Iraqi and U.S. negotiators have finished work on a draft security agreement that would see all American troops leave Iraqi cities by June 30 and the rest of the country by the end of 2011, Iraqi officials said Wednesday.

The deal still needs approval by both governments – and some members of Iraq’s Cabinet oppose some of its provisions.

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said talks with the Iraqis were ongoing and “we are trying to bring the agreement to a close. It is not done yet.”

An Iraqi official who was involved in the protracted negotiations said the latest draft was completed last week and sent to the two governments.

The official said a compromise had been worked out on the contentious issue of immunity for American troops from prosecution under Iraqi law, but he did not give details.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release the information.

While Iraqi negotiators signed off on the draft, another official close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the country’s political leadership objected to parts of the text, including the immunity provision.

“There are different points of view,” he said. “We have given ours. The other side has given theirs.”

He would not elaborate and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A third senior Iraqi official said al-Maliki himself had gone through the text personally and made annotated notes with objections to some undisclosed points. He also spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials recently reported progress on the timeline for troop withdrawals but said the immunity issue was a snag.

The security deal is to govern the status of the more than 140,000-strong U.S. military force after the U.N. Security Council mandate for its mission expires at the end of this year.

Iraq’s Cabinet must sign off on the deal and then refer it to parliament for final approval. The Shiite-led government has been pressing for some sort of timeline for the departure of U.S. troops, saying that is essential to win legislators’ approval.

The decision to refer the agreement to parliament followed demands by the country’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that any formula to keep U.S. troops on Iraqi soil – even for a limited period – must have broad political support.

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

Bush’s shift to a timeline was seen as a move to speed agreement on the security pact.

Talks were supposed to have been finished by the end of last month but differences over immunity and other issues dragged out the process.

As the talks dragged on, American officials said the Bush administration was losing patience with the Iraqis. Bush stood by al-Maliki when Washington’s Sunni Arab allies were privately urging he be replaced because of the government’s ties to Shiite-dominated Iran and Shiite militia attacks on Iraqi Sunnis.

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

“The sovereignty issue is very big for the Iraqis and we understand that. But we are losing patience,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The process needs to get moving and get moving quickly.”

The official could not say how long the call lasted but said it was “not brief” and described it as “tense at times.”

Iraq’s position in the talks hardened after a series of Iraqi military successes against Shiite and Sunni extremists in Basra, Baghdad, Mosul and other major cities and after the rise in world oil prices flooded the country with petrodollars.

As the government’s confidence rose, Iraqi officials believed they were in a strong negotiating position – especially with the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, pledging to remove all combat forces within his first 16 months in office if security conditions allow.

Also Wednesday, top Sunni politicians accused Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security forces of carrying out political arrests, warning this could push the country into another round of sectarian fighting.

The outcry came a day after three high-profile arrests of Sunnis – the son of a senior politician, a university president and a provincial council member.

The arrests could upset the delicate political cooperation between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority in parliament.

Despite its domestic troubles, the government took another step toward wider recognition Wednesday, winning a pledge of support from visiting Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora. Since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, the country had been largely isolated.

Al-Maliki said the two countries would sign trade deals, including on the sale of Iraqi oil to Lebanon. The Lebanese are expected to get a discount, one official said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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