NBC News and news services / August 7, 2008
BAGHDAD – The U.S. and Iraq are close to a deal under which all American combat troops would leave by October 2010 with remaining U.S. forces gone about three years later, two Iraqi officials said Thursday.
A U.S. official in Washington acknowledged progress has been made on the timelines for a U.S. departure but offered no firm date. Another U.S. official strongly suggested the 2010 date may be too ambitious. A timetable is part of a security agreement being negotiated by U.S. and Iraqi officials.
And senior U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington told NBC News that any agreement on withdrawing American forces would not likely include a “specific timetable” but be based on “security conditions at the time.”Those sources said they have no idea how close both sides are to a deal, but they claim that the pending agreement under discussion is heavily qualified to give both Iraq and the U.S. the flexibility they may need as security conditions on the ground change.
Immunity an issue
Both sides stress the deal is not final and could fall apart over the issue of legal immunity for American troops.
One of the U.S. officials said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had a long and “very difficult” telephone conversation Wednesday in which she pressed the Iraqi leader for more flexibility, particularly on immunity.
Earlier Thursday, a spokesman for Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said he will call on his fighters to maintain a cease-fire against American troops but may lift the order if the planned Iraq-U.S. security agreement lacks a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces.
The statement by Sheik Salah al-Obeidi comes as al-Sadr plans to reveal details of a formula to reorganize his Mahdi Army militia by separating it into an unarmed cultural organization and elite fighting cells.
The announcement is expected during weekly Islamic prayer services on Friday.
Several cease-fires by al-Sadr have been key to a sharp decline in violence over the past year, but American officials still consider his militiamen a threat and have backed the Iraqi military in operations to try to oust them from their power bases in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.
Cleric’s move called ‘an incentive’
Al-Sadr’s move appears to be an extension of plans he announced in June aimed at asserting more control over the militia by dividing it into a group of experienced members who would be exclusively authorized to fight and others who would focus on social, religious and community work.
But the cleric also apparently has decided to link the reorganization to ongoing U.S.-Iraqi negotiations over the long-term agreement that would extend the American presence in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year. The White House’s original goal was to have it completed by the end of July.
“This move is meant to offer an incentive for the foreign forces to withdraw,” al-Obeidi said. “The special cells of fighters will not strike against foreign forces until the situation becomes clear vis-a-vis the Iraq-U.S. agreement on the presence of American forces here.”