BAGHDAD - The United States must provide a "very clear timeline" to withdraw its troops from Iraq as part of an agreement allowing them to stay beyond this year, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Sunday.
It was the strongest public assertion yet that Iraq is demanding a timeline. U.S. President George W. Bush has long resisted setting a firm schedule for pulling troops out of Iraq, although last month the White House began speaking of a general "time horizon" and "aspirational goals" to withdraw.
Iraq's leaders have become more confident of their ability to provide security on their own as the country has become safer. But bombings, which killed at least nine people on Sunday, were a reminder that it is still a violent place.
In an interview with Reuters, Zebari said the agreement, including the timeline, was "very close" and would probably be presented to the Iraqi parliament in early September.
Asked if Iraq would accept a document that did not include dates for a withdrawal, Zebari said: "No, no. Definitely there has to be a very clear timeline."
"The talks are still ongoing. There's been a great deal of progress. The deal is very close. It is about to be closed," Zebari said of the agreement, which will replace a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the U.S. presence, which expires at the end of this year.
A sticking point in the negotiations is Washington's wish that its troops be immune from Iraqi law. In July, Iraq's deputy speaker of parliament told Reuters lawmakers would likely veto any a deal if this condition were granted.
Other hurdles include the power of the U.S. military to detain Iraqi citizens, and their authority to conduct military operations, Zebari said.
"Our negotiators have really found compromises on all these issues."
He would not be drawn on the precise dates that Iraqi negotiators are seeking for withdrawal, saying the document was not yet final. Iraqi officials have said they would like to see all combat troops out by October 2010.
An agreement that included that date would require the Bush administration effectively to accept a timeline almost identical to the one proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who opposed the 2003 invasion.
"You may hear many dates, but I caution you not to take any of these dates until you get the final document," Zebari said.
Iraq has taken an increasingly assertive stance in negotiations with the United States after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's forces scored military victories against militia groups this year, giving the government a confidence boost.
The high price of oil means the Iraqi treasury has more money for reconstruction projects than it can figure out how to spend, and violence is at a four-year low.
Still, U.S. commanders say they worry that a hasty withdrawal could allow violence to resume.
A suicide bomber blew up a bomb-laden minibus in the town of Khanaqin north of Baghdad, killing three people and wounding at least 20 on Sunday. Five roadside bomb attacks in Baghdad on Sunday killed a total of six people and wounded at least 26.
Iraqi politics have been paralysed by a dispute over the northern city of Kirkuk, which Kurds claim as the capital of their autonomous homeland. The issues threatens to stoke ethnic tensions between the city's Kurds, Arabs and ethnic Turkmen.
That quarrel scuppered a law needed to allow provincial elections across the country, despite intensive lobbying by the United States and United Nations to reach a deal.
(Editing by Peter Graff and Mary Gabriel)
© 2008 Reuters