BAGHDAD - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a surprise visit to Iraq 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 Maliki was "deep and direct," said Sadiq al Rikabi, a top advisor to 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 claiming for weeks that they were on the brink of a security agreement. 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.
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 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, Adeeb said.
Maliki will accept nothing less than American forces coming under Iraqi law outside their bases, he said.
While Shiite lawmakers and advisors to Maliki indicated that a plethora of issues remain to be ironed out, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters that a draft was complete and would be referred to the executive council on Friday.
If the council agrees to the draft, it will move to the Political Council 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 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."
In a press conference following her meetings with Maliki, Zebari, the top two U.S. officials in Iraq and other Iraqi officials, both Rice and Zebari said they were close but the agreement still needed to be reviewed by the Iraqi government.
"Time is of essence," Zebari said. "We are redoubling our efforts to bring this to a final and successful conclusion."
Rice said the security agreement was "advanced" and the Americans had shown "flexibility." The draft included "aspirational timetables." Iraqi officials have told McClatchy that the agreement would have combat troops out by 2011 and out of the nation's cities by the summer of 2009.
"What we're trying to do is put together an agreement that protects our people, that respects Iraqi sovereignty, that allows us to lay the kind of foundation that we need to make sure that we complete the work that we've all sacrificed so greatly to see accomplished," she said. "It will be an excellent agreement when we finally have agreement."
Fadel reported from Baghdad, Landay from Rice's traveling party.