Iraq, U.S. claim deal still on track

The United States and Iraq remain committed to striking a deal on the status of US troops in Iraq before the end of the presidency of George W. Bush, officials from both countries said Sunday.

Iraq’s national security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie said the two sides were still seeking a pact by July 31 as Baghdad and Washington publicly had hoped, rejecting a Sunday report that the governments abandoned efforts to set a status-of-forces agreement into place before Bush left office on January 20.

The Washington Post reported that in place of a formal, long-term deal, the two governments were now working on a "bridge" document to allow basic US military operations to continue beyond the expiration of a UN mandate at the end of the year.

"I don’t think this is true, to be quite honest," Rubaie told CNN.

"Over the last few months or weeks … we were trying to secure what is the best approach … and I think we are very clear now what we want to do," Rubaie said.

"We are trying very hard to get to this (July) timeline, and I believe that there is still hope," he said, adding that the two sides were "making some good progress."

The failure of months of negotiations is being blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept US terms and the complexity of the task, the daily noted.

Though Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, "we are talking about dates," acknowledged one US official close to the talks, according to The Post.

Iraqi political leaders "are all telling us the same thing…. Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever," the official was quoted as saying.

The White House would not directly address the Post story, but made it clear that Washington was still at the negotiating table with the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"We continue to work with the Iraqis on establishing an agreement that strengthens our bilateral relations and provides authorities for our troops to operate in Iraq after the UN mandate expires, but we are not going to negotiate it in the press," Blair Jones, a White House spokesman, told AFP.

"We are pleased with the progress Iraq is making, and we want it to be sustained."

Sealing a deal by July would avoid Iraq’s parliamentary recess in August, the month-long Ramadan observance in September, and the closing months of the US presidential campaign.

Unlike the status-of-forces agreements with South Korea and Japan, where large numbers of US troops have been based for decades, the document now under discussion with Iraq is likely to cover only 2009, The Post report said.

Negotiators expect it to include a "time horizon," with specific goals for US troop withdrawal from Baghdad and other cities and installations such as the former Saddam Hussein palace that now houses the US Embassy, the paper reported.

Rubaie used similar language, saying "it is the right time now to start talking about planning a time line horizon" for an exit of foreign troops.

Rubaie’s comments could be interpreted as a softening of statements he made last Tuesday in Najaf, when he said Baghdad would not reach a security pact with Washington unless it sets a "specific date for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops," a proposal turned down by Bush.

The New York Times reported Sunday that Bush is considering withdrawal of additional combat forces from Iraq beginning in September.

While no decision has been made, between one and three of the 15 combat brigades now in Iraq could be withdrawn or scheduled for withdrawal by the time Bush leaves office, the report said, citing unnamed US officials.

There are currently 146,000 US troops in Iraq, down from nearly 170,000, according to the Pentagon.

A drawdown in Iraq could free more troops for Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda-backed Taliban forces are resurgent.

Nine soldiers from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force were killed and 15 more wounded Sunday in fighting in mountainous Kunar province, ISAF said, in one of the deadliest battles for international forces since they arrived in Afghanistan in late 2001.