Iraq, US agree no foreign troops after 2011: Maliki
Iraqi Premier Nuri Al Maliki said yesterday Washington and Baghdad have agreed there will be no foreign forces in Iraq after 2011, setting a timeline for a US withdrawal from the war-torn country.
Maliki stressed however that despite "significant progress", there are "still points of disagreement crucial to both sides" in the proposed security pact that will decide the future of US forces in Iraq.
The White House, too, stressed yesterday there was no final accord with Baghdad on the controversial issue. "These discussions continue, as we have not yet finalised an agreement," spokesman Tony Fratto said as US President George W Bush was on his annual August vacation on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
A statement issued by Maliki's office quoted the prime minister as telling a gathering of tribal leaders in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone that accord had been reached on a timeline.
"There is an agreement between the two sides that there will be no foreign soldiers in Iraq after 2011," the statement said. Among sticking points still to be resolved, however, is a demand that foreign troops stationed in the country cannot enjoy open-ended immunity.
Iraqi and US officials have for months been negotiating the controversial military security pact governing the presence of foreign troops that will come into force once a UN mandate expires in December.
Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud Mashhadani poured further cold water on the pact, saying Iraq's lawmakers would never endorse it in its current form. The parliamentary stamp is a crucial legal requirement.
"What I understand is that the Iraqi parliament will not pass this agreement," the Sunni Arab politician yesterday told reporters in Jordan's capital, where he is recovering from surgery for heart problems.
"At this moment the Iraqi government and parliament are not ready for such a deal, which will face a lot of hurdles," he insisted.
On Friday, the chief Iraqi negotiator Mohammed Al Haj Hammoud said that the security pact had been finalised by both sides and had already been approved by Bush. He said that under the 27-point deal all American combat troops will be withdrawn from Iraqi cities by next June ahead of a complete withdrawal by 2011.
Maliki's statement yesterday confirmed the date for a withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.
The prime minister stressed that there would be no arrangement that would compromise Iraq's sovereignty. "We cannot sign an agreement unless it will preserve the sovereignty and national interests of Iraq," Maliki said.
"Any foreign soldiers on Iraqi soil must have a specific time frame and not be open-ended and Iraqi blood must be protected and cannot grant full immunity."
Maliki insisted the process of finalising the deal would be transparent.
"We assure you ... that nothing will be concealed and that we are at the beginning of the restoration of our full rights and sovereignty, and the aspirations of the agreement and security arrangement will be presented to the parliament," he said.
Bush and Maliki had agreed last November to formalise such an agreement by July 31.
The arrangement was delayed by strong opposition from Iraqi leaders over issues such as a timetable for withdrawal, how many bases Washington would retain and whether US troops would be immune from Iraqi laws.
The deal has drawn sharp criticism from Iraq's political factions, especially from the anti-US group of Shia cleric Muqtada Al Sadr.
The White House has said that US lawmakers would not be asked to approve the pact. With 144,000 American troops currently in Iraq, the issue is politically sensitive in Washington as the November US presidential election draws nearer.