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US, Iraq Close to Agreement on US Troop Withdrawal

During an unannounced visit to Iraq Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Iraqi counterpart and said the two sides are close to agreement on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. Details from Aya Batrawy at our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

Speaking at a joint press conference in Baghdad with Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the two have agreed on "goals", and what she termed "an aspirational timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. But there are still some remaining issues to work out.

In her first visit since March, Rice was in Iraq for several hours - this time negotiating the deal that would govern the 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and replace a United Nations mandate for international forces there that expires at the end of the year .

In her meetings with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki., Rice was pushing for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from cities by the end of June of next year. On the Iraqi side, officials are said to be pushing for a full U.S. withdrawal from all of Iraq by 2011.

Rice said that the text will have to be agreed on by both sides before it is formally in place.

"The United States I think has shown great flexibility, I think the Iraqis have shown great flexibility and this is an excellent - will be - an excellent agreement when we finally have agreement, and I just want to emphasize we'll have agreement when we have agreement," said Condoleezza Rice. "So all of those stories and rumors that are in the newspapers about what the agreement says probably ought to be disregarded until you see a final agreement."

On the table for discussion was the level of immunity U.S. troops would have in Iraq and whether they would be under the jurisdiction of Iraqi law or that of the United States.

Already a spokesperson for the party of Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shia cleric, denounced the prospective agreement.

While Maliki wants to show that U.S. troops will not remain in Iraq longer than needed, U.S. President George Bush has refused to set a schedule for the withdrawal of American forces, saying it would only incite more violence and send the wrong message to insurgents.