By Dean Yates
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have endedefforts to reach a formal security pact before President GeorgeW. Bush leaves office in favour of an interim deal, theWashington Post said on Sunday, citing senior U.S. officials.
The two sides had been negotiating a Status of ForcesAgreement that would provide a legal basis for U.S. troops toremain when a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
But in the past week Iraqi leaders have spoken of onlyagreeing what they call a memorandum of understanding. Shi'itePrime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has also raised for the firsttime the idea of setting a timetable for U.S. troops to leaveIraq.
The Washington Post quoted one U.S. official close to thenegotiations as saying "we are talking about dates", eventhough Bush has previously rebuffed calls for a timetable.
Iraq is a major issue in November's presidential electionbattle between Republican John McCain and Democrat BarackObama. McCain supports the Bush administration's currentstrategy, while Obama has called for a timetable forwithdrawal.
Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, addedhis support for a withdrawal timetable.
"Iraqis must know when the American and other forces willleave Iraqi land. It is our right to know, and know the truthof where the situation stands, if there is an intention forAmerican forces to leave or not," Hashemi told Iraqiya statetelevision in an interview broadcast late on Saturday.
The Post said the "bridge" security document would belimited in both time and scope and would allow basic U.S.military operations to continue once the U.N. mandate ended.
Iraq has rejected a number of Washington's demands,insisting they infringe on the country's sovereignty.
The document now under discussion with Iraq was likely tocover only 2009, the Post said.
Negotiators expected it to include a "time horizon", withspecific goals for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Baghdad andother cities and installations, it added.
The fixed dates are likely to include caveats referring tothe ability of Iraqi forces to take over security.
There is strong domestic pressure in Iraq to set dates fora withdrawal of U.S. forces, especially with violence at afour-year low and with Iraqi security forces getting larger.
Maliki's political opponents would also likely try toexploit the issue of an undefined U.S. troop presence inprovincial elections later this year.
The most contentious unresolved issue was the legalimmunity of U.S. troops in Iraq, the Post reported.
U.S. officials have said this is non-negotiable. But Iraq'sdeputy parliament speaker has said lawmakers would probablyveto any deal that gave U.S. soldiers immunity from Iraqi law.
The Bush administration has always opposed setting anywithdrawal timetable, saying to do so would allow militantgroups to lie low and wait until U.S. troops in Iraq have left.
U.S. troop levels are already being cut, with the last offive additional combat brigades Bush deployed last yearexpected to pull out this month. That will leave 15 combatbrigades in Iraq, or around 140,000 soldiers.
Washington was considering withdrawing additional troopsbeginning in September, The New York Times reported on Sunday,citing administration and military officials.
The withdrawal stemmed partly from the need for more U.S.troops in Afghanistan to fight the rising insurgency by theTaliban and other fighters.
No final decisions had been made, but up to three combatbrigades in Iraq could be withdrawn, or slated for withdrawal,by the end of the administration in January, the Times said.
(Additional reporting by Christopher Michaud in New York;Editing by Dominic Evans)