BAGHDAD -- The United States and Iraq are close to a deal extending the presence of U.S. troops beyond 2008, but any timetable for their withdrawal must be "feasible," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
Rice, in Baghdad on an unannounced visit, denied reports that the deal had already been reached but said it was close and she was hoping to iron out any remaining questions with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari also said the deal was "very close" and would include "time horizons" for U.S. withdrawal. He stressed that the agreement would be temporary. But neither side would confirm any specific details.
"We'll have agreement when we have agreement. So all of those stories in the newspapers about what the agreement says probably ought to be disregarded until we have an agreement," Rice told a news conference alongside Zebari.
'Not Until The Job Is Done'
The White House said the United States hoped an agreement would be reached soon, spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
"The president and every American wants to see American troops come home, but not until the job is done and there is more security, more political progress, and more economic progress inside Iraq," he said in Crawford, Texas.
Anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denounced the pact and said Washington was trying to twist Baghdad's arm to sign it.
The long-awaited pact will allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq beyond the end of this year, when a UN Security Council mandate enacted after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 expires.
Replacing the UN mandate with a formal U.S.-Iraqi pact is seen as a milestone in Iraq's emergence as a sovereign state, giving Baghdad direct say over the presence of foreign troops on its soil for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
But the deal's terms are politically sensitive in both countries, with al-Maliki determined to show that the 144,000 U.S. troops will not stay longer than needed, and U.S. President George W. Bush keen to avoid a firm schedule for them to leave.
"We are continuing to work to make sure that any timelines that are in the agreement really do reflect what we believe can be done, what's feasible," Rice told reporters earlier.
Withdraw Troops By 2010 Or 2011
Iraqi officials have said they would like to see U.S. forces cease routine patrols on Iraqi streets by the middle of next year and withdraw all combat troops by 2010 or 2011. But it is not clear how explicit such language would be in the agreement.
Iraq's chief negotiator Mohammed al-Haj Hamoud told Reuters on August 20 that a draft of the agreement was complete and would be presented to Iraqi political leaders to approve and send to parliament. He said the draft did not include withdrawal dates.
Other issues to be tackled include immunity for U.S. troops from Iraqi law and the status of the 21,000 prisoners held in Iraq by American forces.
Al-Sadr denounced both Rice's visit and the pact.
"Today, Condoleezza Rice, the occupation foreign secretary, arrived in Iraq to try to put pressure on the government of Iraq to accept terms dictated by the occupation to sign this ominous treaty," said a statement read out by al-Sadr political adviser Liwa Smeism at the cleric's office in Najaf.
A commitment to withdraw combat troops in 2010 would resemble the plan offered by U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who wants them out by mid-2010.
The Bush administration and Republican candidate John McCain say troop reductions are likely but they do not want to commit to a firm timetable. The administration began speaking in July of "time horizons" and "aspirational goals" for withdrawal.
Rice said she would also discuss Iraq's failure to enact an election law to allow provincial polls due on October 1 to take place on time.
The election law was held up in parliament because of a dispute between Kurds and other groups over how to run the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, despite strong U.S. pressure for Iraqi politicians to reach a deal.