By Dean Yates and Ahmed Rasheed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malikiraised the prospect on Monday of setting a timetable for thewithdrawal of U.S. troops as part of negotiations over a newsecurity agreement with Washington.
It was the first time the U.S.-backed Shi'ite-ledgovernment has floated the idea of a timetable for the removalof American forces from Iraq. The Bush administration hasalways opposed such a move, saying it would give militantgroups an advantage.
The security deal under negotiation will replace a U.N.mandate for the presence of U.S. troops that expires onDecember 31.
"Today, we are looking at the necessity of terminating theforeign presence on Iraqi lands and restoring fullsovereignty," Maliki told Arab ambassadors in blunt remarksduring an official visit to Abu Dhabi, capital of the UnitedArab Emirates.
"One of the two basic topics is either to have a memorandumof understanding for the departure of forces or a memorandum ofunderstanding to set a timetable for the presence of theforces, so that we know (their presence) will end in a specifictime."
Maliki was responding to questions from the ambassadorsabout the security negotiations with the United States. Theexchange was shown on Iraqiya state television.
U.S. officials in Baghdad had no immediate comment. Lastmonth Maliki caught Washington off guard when he said talks onthe security deal were at a "dead end" after he complainedIraq's sovereignty was being infringed by U.S. demands.
Both sides later said progress was being made.
Maliki said the Iraqi and U.S. positions had gotten closer,but added "we cannot talk about reaching an agreement yet".
He said foreign forces would need Iraqi permission for manyof their activities once the U.N. mandate ended.
"This means the phenomena of unilateral detention will beover, as well as unilateral operations and immunity," he said.
Maliki did not clarify who the immunity referred to.
Officials have said contractors working for the U.S.government would lose immunity from Iraqi law, but Washingtonis highly unlikely to let the same thing happen to U.S.solders.
MALIKI WOOS ARAB STATES
Maliki, dismissed as weak and ineffective for most of histenure since taking over as prime minister in May 2006, hasbeen increasingly assertive in recent months.
He has launched crackdowns on Shi'ite militias and also alQaeda, with U.S. forces playing a mainly supporting role.
He has also called on Arab states to re-engage with Iraq.
Sunni Arab countries have long been reluctant to extendfull legitimacy to the Iraqi government because of the U.S.presence, as well as Baghdad's close ties to non-Arab, Shi'iteIran.
But Arab ties have begun to improve.
The United Arab Emirates has cancelled almost $7 billion(3.5 billion pounds) of debt owed by Baghdad, officials said onSunday. And Jordan's King Abdullah is expected to visit Baghdadthis week, the first Arab leader to do so since the U.S.-ledinvasion in 2003.
Maliki did not specifically refer to the 150,000 Americantroops in Iraq, but they comprise the vast bulk of foreignforces in the country.
He indicated the memorandum of understanding would be usedinstead of the formal Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) beingnegotiated. The MoU could be a stop-gap measure given some ofthe difficulties getting a full SOFA deal in place.
Iraqi officials had said they would submit any SOFA toparliament, where it might be subject to long and bitterdebate.
Maliki has long come under pressure from the movement ofpowerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to set a timetable forthe withdrawal of U.S. forces. Sadr's movement quit Maliki'sgovernment last year when the prime minister refused to do so.
Luwaa Sumaisem, head of the Sadr bloc's politicalcommittee, welcomed Maliki's comments on possibly setting atimetable.
"This is a step in the right direction and we are ready tosupport him in this objective. We hope Maliki will showseriousness about it," Sumaisem said, without saying if themovement might then consider rejoining the government.
Washington and Baghdad are also negotiating a separatelong-term agreement on political, economic and security ties.
After five years in Iraq, the Bush administration had setan end-July target for wrapping up the negotiations. Some Iraqiofficials had questioned whether the deadline could be met.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Tim Cocks inBaghdad and Lin Noueihed in Abu Dhabi, Editing by StephenWeeks)