Rice meets with al-Maliki in Baghdad

Secretary of state pushing complete agreement on U.S. troop presence

BAGHDAD – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq on Thursday in an effort to convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to consent to an agreement governing the conduct of U.S. forces in Iraq that will be needed when the U.N. mandate for U.S. military operations in Iraq expires at the end of this year.

A one-on-one meeting between Rice and al-Maliki was “deep and direct,” said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top adviser to al-Maliki, but only time will tell if a compromise can be reached, he said.

“They tried to reach a compromise solution, but it is too early to say they reached an agreement about all issues,” he said.

Iraqi and American officials have been saying for weeks that they were on the brink of a security agreement. Al-Maliki, however, has demanded a strict timetable for the withdrawal of American forces and insisted that U.S. troops must be subject to Iraqi law when they’re outside their bases.

Al-Maliki had demanded that U.S. combat forces leave his country by 2010, but the agreement includes only a vague goal of having combat troops out by 2011 if conditions permit, officials said.

“The Iraqi government wants, as a sovereign country, to be the master of the law in Iraq,” said Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite legislator from al-Maliki’s Dawa party. “There needs to be a strict timetable, otherwise these forces will stay forever. Not having a timetable means they will never leave.”

The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, confirmed that while Thursday’s talks made progress, an agreement remains days away.

U.S. and Iraqi officials said the major sticking point is whether American forces can be prosecuted under Iraqi law for killing civilians, destroying or stealing property and other possible crimes.

The current draft says that U.S. soldiers and contractors on American bases will be immune to Iraqi law, but possible violations of the law outside U.S. bases will be referred to an investigative committee for possible prosecution, al-Adeeb said.

Al-Maliki will accept nothing less than American forces coming under Iraqi law outside their bases, he said.

While Shiite lawmakers and advisers to al-Maliki indicated that a plethora of issues remains to be ironed out, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters that a draft was complete and would be referred to the executive council today.

If the council agrees to the draft, it will move to the Political Committee for National Security before going to the Iraqi parliament, which must approve the agreement before the U.N. mandate expires.

Talking to reporters, Rice stressed that there was no agreement and put the burden of responsibility for completing the agreement on al-Maliki.

“The negotiators have made really, really good progress. They are satisfied with where they are,” she said. “But obviously it is going to be the prime minister’s call, so this is a chance for me to sit there with him.”

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