Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met Tuesday with the nation's president and two vice presidents to review a "final draft" of the security pact with the United States — a first step in a process that could end in an agreement governing U.S. troops in Iraq.
Yassin Majid, a senior adviser to al-Maliki, did not say whether the draft resolved the contentious issue of legal immunity for U.S. troops, the last major obstacle standing in the way of a deal.
Although Iraqi officials had said the issue was unresolved, Majid's use of the phrase "final draft" suggested that negotiations have ended.
American and Iraqi negotiators have been working for most of this year to hammer out an agreement setting down rules for the U.S. military mission beginning next year.
The meeting with President Jalal Talabani, as well as the Sunni and Shiite vice presidents, lasted for several hours and was the first in a series of planned sessions aimed at measuring political support for the agreement before al-Maliki submits it to parliament for a final decision.
An official statement said al-Maliki, Talabani and the two vice presidents — Tarik al-Hashemi and Adil Abdul-Mahdi — studied the draft "in depth and in detail" but have no indication how the participants reacted to details of the document.
Majid told The Associated Press that the prime minister will show the draft Wednesday to the National Security Council, a consultative body that includes the prime minister, president, the two vice presidents, the leaders of political blocs and the parliament speaker.
If those groups are favorable, he will submit the draft to his Cabinet and ask for their approval by a two-thirds majority. The final step will be parliament's approval.
The official statement, issued several hours after Majid spoke to the AP, confirmed these steps as al-Maliki's road map for adopting the security pact, but gave no time frame.
Draft details U.S. pullout
Aides to al-Maliki, who explained the strategy, said the prime minister wants to make sure he is on solid ground politically before risking his political career on an agreement which would keep American troops on Iraqi soil nearly six years after the U.S.-led invasion.
The aides said the draft calls for U.S. troops to pull out of Iraqi cities by the end of June next year and leave Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011, unless the Baghdad government asks them to stay. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are sensitive.
Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who control 30 of the 275 parliament seats, oppose any agreement that would keep U.S. soldiers here. Shiite-dominated Iran, which wields considerable influence among some Shiite parties, also opposes the agreement.
The major obstacle has been jurisdiction over U.S. troops. The United States had demanded exclusive right to prosecute U.S. troops for offenses committed here. The Iraqis had insisted on the right to try Americans — at least in offenses committed off American bases.
Despite the decline in violence, Iraqi officials have said they still must rely on American troops although they are eager for a greater role in security operations.