BAGHDAD - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki raised the prospect on Monday of setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of negotiations over a new security agreement with Washington.
It was the first time the U.S.-backed Shi'ite-led government has floated the idea of a timetable for the removal of American forces from Iraq. The Bush administration has always opposed such a move, saying it would give militant groups an advantage.
The security deal under negotiation will replace a U.N. mandate for the presence of U.S. troops that expires on December 31.
"Today, we are looking at the necessity of terminating the foreign presence on Iraqi lands and restoring full sovereignty," Maliki told Arab ambassadors in blunt remarks during an official visit to Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.
"One of the two basic topics is either to have a memorandum of understanding for the departure of forces or a memorandum of understanding to set a timetable for the presence of the forces, so that we know (their presence) will end in a specific time."
Maliki was responding to questions from the ambassadors about the security negotiations with the United States. The exchange was shown on Iraqiya state television.
U.S. officials in Baghdad had no immediate comment. Last month Maliki caught Washington off guard when he said talks on the security deal were at a "dead end" after he complained Iraq's sovereignty was being infringed by U.S. demands.
Both sides later said progress was being made.
Maliki said the Iraqi and U.S. positions had gotten closer, but added "we cannot talk about reaching an agreement yet".
He said foreign forces would need Iraqi permission for many of their activities once the U.N. mandate ended.
"This means the phenomena of unilateral detention will be over, as well as unilateral operations and immunity," he said.
Maliki did not clarify who the immunity referred to.
Officials have said contractors working for the U.S. government would lose immunity from Iraqi law, but Washington is highly unlikely to let the same thing happen to U.S. solders.
MALIKI WOOS ARAB STATES
Maliki, dismissed as weak and ineffective for most of his tenure since taking over as prime minister in May 2006, has been increasingly assertive in recent months.
He has launched crackdowns on Shi'ite militias and also al Qaeda, with U.S. forces playing a mainly supporting role.
He has also called on Arab states to re-engage with Iraq.
Sunni Arab countries have long been reluctant to extend full legitimacy to the Iraqi government because of the U.S. presence, as well as Baghdad's close ties to non-Arab, Shi'ite Iran.
But Arab ties have begun to improve.
The United Arab Emirates has cancelled almost $7 billion (3.5 billion pounds) of debt owed by Baghdad, officials said on Sunday. And Jordan's King Abdullah is expected to visit Baghdad this week, the first Arab leader to do so since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Maliki did not specifically refer to the 150,000 American troops in Iraq, but they comprise the vast bulk of foreign forces in the country.
He indicated the memorandum of understanding would be used instead of the formal Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) being negotiated. The MoU could be a stop-gap measure given some of the difficulties getting a full SOFA deal in place.
Iraqi officials had said they would submit any SOFA to parliament, where it might be subject to long and bitter debate.
Maliki has long come under pressure from the movement of powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Sadr's movement quit Maliki's government last year when the prime minister refused to do so.
Luwaa Sumaisem, head of the Sadr bloc's political committee, welcomed Maliki's comments on possibly setting a timetable.
"This is a step in the right direction and we are ready to support him in this objective. We hope Maliki will show seriousness about it," Sumaisem said, without saying if the movement might then consider rejoining the government.
Washington and Baghdad are also negotiating a separate long-term agreement on political, economic and security ties.
After five years in Iraq, the Bush administration had set an end-July target for wrapping up the negotiations. Some Iraqi officials had questioned whether the deadline could be met.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Tim Cocks in Baghdad and Lin Noueihed in Abu Dhabi, Editing by Stephen Weeks
© 2008 Reuters