BAGHDAD -- Influential Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr would dissolve his militia if the United States starts withdrawing troops according to a set timetable, his spokesman has said.
The statement comes at a crucial point in talks between Baghdad and Washington over a new security pact that will provide a legal basis for U.S. troops to operate in Iraq when a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year.
U.S. President George W. Bush has refused to set a firm timetable for withdrawing 144,000 U.S. troops from Iraq, but spoke last month of a general "time horizon" for a pullout.
Iraqi negotiators have proposed a timetable that would see U.S. combat troops leave the country by October 2010, although Washington has not yet agreed to it, a senior Iraqi official said on August 8.
If agreed, the timetable would mean the Bush administration effectively adopting a schedule very close to that proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
A cease-fire imposed by al-Sadr on his militia a year ago has been a major factor in a drop in violence in Iraq to four-year lows. Al-Sadr, whose political movement controls 10 percent of seats in parliament, has long demanded U.S. troops leave Iraq.
"We feel there's a serious intention by the American forces for a withdrawal timetable at the very least," al-Sadr's spokesman Salih al-Ubaydi said before Friday Prayers, when the cleric is to launch a new cultural wing of his movement.
"It should not be considered an end to the Al-Mahdi Army, but it's a halfway step to dissolving the Al-Mahdi Army. If the U.S. began to implement a withdrawal timetable we shall complete the path to dissolution," al-Ubaydi said.
Iraqi government officials say an agreement is close on a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. But the White House says it is too soon to say when it can pull out its forces, which have been in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
The issue is politically sensitive in the United States ahead of the presidential election in November. Obama has pledged to withdraw all combat troops by mid-2010, while his Republican opponent John McCain refuses to set a date.
The Iraqi proposal would see U.S. forces withdraw from the streets of Iraqi cities by the middle of next year and combat troops return home by October 2010. Some U.S. support units could stay on for another few years, the senior official said.
"As of last night. [the schedule] was one of the issues being discussed between the two sides. There is no agreement yet, but this is what the Iraqis are asking for," said the official, who is close to the negotiations.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, in Beijing accompanying Bush, said no announcement on an agreement was imminent and it was too early to discuss the dates of a pullout.
"It's premature to say what the aspirational goals and time horizons are going to be. But we are continuing to work with them on our negotiations, on those issues," she said.
She cited Bush's earlier statement that any such goals would be "conditions-based."
Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Bayati, said on August 7 that an agreement on the U.S. forces' status was close and that the government expected to put it to legislators when they return from summer recess in September.
Al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004. The cleric backed fellow Shi'a Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's rise to power in 2006, but split with him last year over the troop-timetable issue.
This year al-Maliki launched several largely successful crackdowns against militias including the Al-Mahdi Army.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have now deployed in al-Sadr's Baghdad stronghold, the Al-Sadr City slum, after weeks of heavy fighting in March and April. Prior to the campaign, government influence among the slum's 2 million people was virtually nil.
Iraqi forces also successfully pushed militias from the center of the southern city of Al-Basrah earlier this year.
Al-Sadr's spokesman said that while the "resistance" would not end until U.S. troops left Iraq, the cleric was ready to take positive steps if Washington moved in the right direction.
"If we find [this doesn't happen] and the U.S. forces change their stance over the timetable, we can change direction also," he said. "This will not mean ending the cease-fire, it will depend on what's going on on the ground."