BAGHDAD Washington and Baghdad have reached a final agreement after months of talks on a pact that would require U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq by 2011, U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Wednesday.
The bilateral pact replaces a U.N. Security Council resolution enacted after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and will give Iraq's elected government authority over the U.S. troop presence for the first time.
Iraq said it had secured the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers for serious crimes under certain circumstances, an issue both sides had long said was holding up the pact.
The agreement was submitted to Iraqi political leaders for approval, a first step toward ratifying it in the Iraqi parliament, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
In public, U.S. officials were subdued. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "Nothing is done until everything is done. Everything isn't done. The Iraqis are still talking among themselves. We are still talking to the Iraqis."
But a senior U.S. official in Washington, who asked not to be named, confirmed that the final draft had been agreed by both sides and would require U.S. troops to leave by the end of 2011, unless Iraq asks them to stay longer.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has long resisted committing to timetables for withdrawing from Iraq.
Dabbagh said the agreement envisions U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraqi towns and villages by the middle of next year, and withdrawing completely from the country within three years. For them to stay longer, a new pact would need to be agreed.
"The withdrawal is to be achieved in three years. In 2011, the government at that time will determine whether it needs a new pact or not, and what type of pact will depend on the challenges it faces," he told Reuters.
Either side can withdraw from the pact with a year's notice.
The inclusion of a 2011 deadline could have political ramifications in the United States, weeks before a presidential election. Democrat Barack Obama wants to withdraw combat troops by mid-2010, while Republican John McCain opposes deadlines.
On the immunity of U.S. forces, Dabbagh said: "Inside their bases, they will be under American law. Iraqi judicial law will be implemented in case these forces commit a serious and deliberate felony outside their military bases and when off duty."
A U.S.-Iraqi committee would determine which cases fit the description, he said.
The senior U.S. official confirmed a compromise had been reached on the immunity issue but gave no further details.
A senior Iraqi government source who asked not to be named called the immunity compromise a victory: "What has been given to the Iraqi side in this deal has never been given to another country. That is what makes this deal special," he said.
Immunity is politically sensitive in Iraq after a number of cases in which Iraqis say the U.S. military dealt too leniently with troops accused of killing or abusing Iraqi civilians.
The United States has similar "status of forces" agreements with more than 100 other countries. It allows NATO allies to prosecute U.S. soldiers for crimes unrelated to their military duties, but usually maintains greater protections elsewhere.
Among other affects of the end of the U.N. mandate, the U.S. military will no longer be able to hold prisoners without charging them with crimes under Iraqi law. U.S. forces now hold 18,000 prisoners, few of whom have been charged.
The pact's fate in the Iraqi political arena is still far from certain. It must be approved by a council of Iraqi political leaders, the cabinet and the parliament.
Most major political groups say they accept the idea of a U.S. presence as long as it is temporary. An exception are followers of anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"As long as there is one American soldier on our land, we will not accept any pact and we will not vote for any agreement," said Ahmed al-Masoudi, a Sadrist lawmaker.
The pact will not require approval by the U.S. Congress.
(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Sami Aboudi)