al Maliki Proposes Short Term Agreement with U.S.

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Iraq has proposed a short-term memorandum of understanding with the United States rather than trying to hammer through a formal agreement on the presence of U.S. forces, the country's prime minister said Monday.

The Iraqi government proposed the memorandum after widespread Iraqi opposition to United States demands emerged during talks on a more formal Status of Forces Agreement. Some type of agreement is needed to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires at year's end.

The proposed memorandum includes a formula for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, al-Maliki told several Arab ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates during a meeting Monday.

"The goal is to end the presence" of foreign troops, said al-Maliki.

The prime minister provided no details on the formula. But his national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the government was proposing a timetable that would be conditioned on the ability of Iraqi forces to provide security.

President Bush opposes a timetable for troop withdrawal.

By transitioning to a less formal memorandum and including a withdrawal formula, al-Maliki may have an easier time getting support from Iraqi lawmakers. They had been concerned about the original negotiation's impact on Iraqi sovereignty.

Al-Maliki has promised in the past to submit a formal agreement with the U.S. to parliament for approval. But the government indicated Monday it may not do so with the memorandum.

"It is up to the Cabinet whether to approve it or sign on it, without going back to the parliament," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told the AP.

Less than three weeks ago, al-Maliki said negotiations with the U.S. over the agreement were deadlocked. But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said after returning from high-level meetings in Washington that the U.S. had made several serious concessions and a deal was "almost finalized."

At the same time, however, Zebari said that if the two sides could not agree, Iraq would either have to seek an extension of the U.N. mandate or pursue the type of memorandum of understanding that al-Maliki announced Monday.

The contentious issues are U.S. authority to carry out military operations in Iraq and arrest the country's citizens, plus legal immunity for private contractors and control of Iraqi air space.

Zebari said the U.S. had agreed to drop immunity for private contractors and give up control of Iraqi air space if the Iraqis guaranteed they could protect the country's skies with their limited air force.

But those concessions, which were never confirmed by the U.S., were apparently not enough to cement a formal agreement, leading Iraq to pursue the memorandum announced Monday.

The Iraqi government's decision to push the U.S. for a less formal agreement comes at a time when the government feels increasingly confident about its authority and improved stability in the country.

Violence in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level in four years. The change has been driven by the 2007 buildup of American forces, the Sunni tribal revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and al-Maliki's crackdowns against Shiite militias and Sunni extremists, among other factors.

Despite the gains, frequent attacks continue.

On Monday, a roadside bomb near a dress shop in Baqouba killed one woman and injured 14 other people, police said. Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, and the surrounding Diyala province remain one of the country's most violent regions.

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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