US aiming for July security pact with Iraq
The White House on Tuesday downplayed differences with Iraq over the future of the US military mission, saying it still aims to reach agreement with Baghdad this month on the force's presence in the country.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel told AFP the goal remained the achievement of a deal with the Iraqi government by the end of the month, despite Baghdad's demand for a date for US-led foreign troops to leave Iraq.
Earlier in the day the US State Department rejected a demand from Iraq for a specific date for pullout of US-led foreign troops from the country, saying any withdrawal will be based on conditions on the ground.
"The US government and the government of Iraq are in agreement that we, the US government, we want to withdraw, we will withdraw. However, that decision will be conditions-based," State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said.
"We're looking at conditions, not calendars here," he said.
Gallegos added that the United States was "making progress" in Iraq and was "committed to departing."
The two sides are negotiating a deal that would see the presence of US-led forces beyond 2008, when the United Nations mandate which provides the legal basis for a foreign troop presence in Iraq expires.
The so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) has to be signed by July 31 according to a previous agreement between US President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, but it has provoked strong opposition in Iraq more than five years after the US-led invasion.
Stanzel suggested that the hurdles were not as large as they seemed.
"The people participating in the negotiations are all in agreement that we want the Iraqis to take over greater responsibility for the security of their country so American troops can come home," he said.
"The Iraqis certainly don't want to give up the hard-fought security gains which have been made in their country and neither do we."
On Tuesday Iraq said Baghdad would not reach any security pact with Washington unless it sets a pullout date, a proposal turned down by US President George W. Bush.
"We will not accept any memorandum of understanding if it does not give a specific date for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops," national security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie told reporters in the holy city of Najaf.
The controversial demand from Baghdad's Shiite-led government underlines Iraq's new hardened stand in complex negotiations aimed at striking a security deal with Washington.
Rubaie said the two sides were discussing dates for a US-led withdrawal, contradicting Stanzel's Monday statement that the US was not negotiating a "hard date" for US-led foreign troops leaving Iraq.
Iraq's demand for a pullout deadline reverberated across the US presidential campaign.
Republican hopeful John McCain, who has made staunch support for the US troop "surge" escalation strategy a centerpiece of his campaign, said that recent security gains should not be put at risk by an artificial timetable.
"I have always said we will come home with honor and with victory and not through a set timetable," he said.
His Democratic opponent Barack Obama said Monday that it was "encouraging... that the (Iraqi) prime minister himself now acknowledges that in cooperation with Iraq, it's time for American forces to start sending out a timeframe for the withdrawal."
While debate about the security pact swirled, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed optimism that US troop cutbacks will continue in Iraq.
"As the Iraqi security forces get stronger and get better then we will be able to continue drawing down our troops in the future," Gates told reporters Tuesday.
"And however long that takes really will depend on the situation on the ground. But things are going very well at this point," he said.
There are currently 146,000 US troops in Iraq, down from nearly 170,000, according to the Pentagon.