The Pentagon says that U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have reached a tentative agreement outlining the future presence of U.S. troops in the country.
Details of the accord, which would have to be approved by the Iraqi parliament, remain sketchy. But officials say privately it includes a timeline for a U.S. withdrawal before the end of 2011.
U.S. forces are currently in Iraq under a UN mandate. But the mandate runs out with the end of this calendar year.
Returning to the UN for a new mandate is a lengthy process that both governments have sought to avoid. But the alternative -- a bilateral deal -- has so far proved to be far more difficult than anyone imagined.
To date, the main sticking points have been whether a pact would include a firm timeline for a U.S. troop withdrawal and whether U.S. forces in Iraq would be subject to Iraqi law.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell did not detail exactly how those points have been resolved as he announced the tentative accord to the U.S. media on October 16.
"There are dates [for U.S. troops withdrawal from Iraq] in this document, and I won't get into what those dates are, are entirely conditions-based," Morrell said.
"These are goals that are -- we have agreed to that will only be followed if the conditions on the ground provide for it. But that is something the Iraqis strongly want."
U.S. and Iraqi officials have told the media privately that the deal would see U.S. combat forces withdrawn from Iraqi towns and cities by the middle of 2009.
They add that U.S. troops would be expected to withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011.
The deal is also said to give Iraqi courts a limited authority to try U.S. troops and contractors for major crimes committed when off-duty or off-base. Limited, because the courts would only be able to proceed if a joint U.S.-Iraqi committee agrees beforehand.
Similarly, the American troops would only be allowed to detain suspects or search homes with Iraqi legal authorization -- except during active combat. And anyone detained by U.S. forces would have to be handed over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours.
All these points have been highly controversial for both the United States or Iraqi sides as they have tried to reach a deal over most of this year.
In the United States, the White House has said it does not need legislative approval to sign the deal. But it has sought to gain broad political support in an election year.
In Iraq, the deal needs to be approved not only by the cabinet, but also by the three-man Presidency council and the Council of Representatives.
Opposition To Deal
As the Pentagon announced the tentative deal on October 17, protests arose from several directions.
One influential U.S. lawmaker, Senator Carl Levin, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, "I am skeptical of any agreement that would subject U.S. servicemen and women to the jurisdiction of Iraqi courts in the middle of a chaotic war."
But Pentagon spokesman Morrell said that -- despite such objections -- the administration feels confident the deal can get the support it needs in the United States.
In Iraq, the al-Sadrist bloc in Iraq's parliament refused to attend a meeting scheduled for today to discuss the pact.
The 30-strong bloc, loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, insists that U.S. forces withdraw immediately. Militias supporting al-Sadr fought repeatedly with U.S. and government forces until the cleric ordered an indefinite halt to operations amid the U.S. troop surge.
At the same time, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, has accused Tehran of providing "pay offs" to Iraqi politicians to reject a security deal.
Passage of a deal through the 275-seat Iraqi parliament requires a simple majority. But officials close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki say privately that he will only submit a draft if he is convinced he can secure a broad two-thirds support.
Still, both in Baghdad and Washington there is a sense that there may be no better time than the present if a bilateral deal is to be reached.
Overall, violence in Iraq is down, despite car bombings in Iraq. The bombings, as shown on Friday (Oct. 10) in a Shi'ite section of a predominantly Sunni neighborhood, continue to try to incite communal warfare.
But security forces have quelled most of the radical groups or driven them, at least for now, off the streets. That includes Al-Qaeda, whose second-in-command Abu Qaswarah was killed in a raid in Mosul earlier this month (Oct. 5).
The coming days will show whether this progress is enough to convince a substantial majority of Iraqi politicians that extending the U.S. troop presence is necessary. No date for putting the announced tentative accord to vote has yet been set.