They Like Us! Hey, Mikey!

From the Los Angeles Times:

At the “make-or-break” stage of talks with the U.S. on the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has swept aside his negotiating team and replaced it with three of his closest aides, a reshuffle that some Iraqi officials warn risks sabotaging the agreement.

The decision on the team negotiating the pact, which the Americans have described as the basis of a long-term strategic alliance between the United States and Iraq, remains so sensitive that it has not been announced. In disclosing the switch to the Los Angeles Times this weekend, a senior Iraqi official close to Maliki also suggested that the two sides remained deadlocked on key issues.

The shake-up comes just four months before the expiration of the United Nations mandate that authorizes the U.S. troop presence in Iraq. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited the country recently, expectations rose that an agreement was imminent. But Iraq and the United States remain far apart on the matter of immunity for U.S. forces in Iraqi courts, the official said.

“People gave the impression we were close when Rice was here, but it’s not over. We would have a serious problem if we took it to the parliament right now,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue.

The official insisted that if U.S. troops remained exempt from Iraqi rule of law, the pact would never get passed by the lawmakers.

The sides also are still negotiating a withdrawal date, the official said.

The latest version of the agreement, which was read to The Times by the Maliki confidant, says all U.S. forces will leave Iraq by the end of 2011, unless Iraq requests otherwise. It also says the Americans will withdraw from cities in June 2009, unless the Iraqis ask them to stay.

The new wording is a departure from the White House’s insistence on a conditions-based timeline for a pullout. Under the new language, Iraq, not the U.S. military, decides when the troops will leave. U.S. officials have gone back to Washington to consult on the language, the Maliki confidant said.

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