BAGHDAD — Iraq's prime minister is pushing the idea that the U.S. departure is in sight in a bid to sell the security deal with Washington to Iran.
To reinforce the message, the Iraqis are asking for changes to the deal that would effectively rule out extending the U.S. military presence beyond 2011.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies are also describing the agreement not as a formula for long-term U.S.-Iraqi security cooperation — the original goal when the talks began earlier this year — but as a way to manage the U.S. withdrawal.
It's unclear whether this will be enough to win over the Iranians and Iraqi critics — or whether the United States will go along with the demands submitted by the Iraqi Cabinet last week.
The Iraqis want expanded Iraqi jurisdiction over U.S. troops and elimination of a clause that could allow the soldiers to stay past a tentative Dec. 31, 2011, deadline.
Iran strongly opposes the agreement, fearing it could lead to U.S. troops remaining in a neighboring country indefinitely.
With Iranian sensitivities in mind, the Iraqis also want an explicit ban on the United States using Iraqi territory to attack its neighbors — a demand that was reinforced by last Sunday's U.S. raid against a suspected al-Qaida hideout in Syria.
If Washington won't bend, key Iraqi politicians believe the deal will never win Parliament's approval. U.S. diplomats are studying the proposals, and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said a response is expected by Wednesday.
But some U.S. officials in Washington have privately expressed doubts about chances to reach an agreement before the U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. mission expires at the end of this year.
Without an agreement or a new U.N. mandate, the U.S. military would have to suspend all security and assistance operations in Iraq.
Privately, many Iraqi lawmakers believe they still need the 145,000 U.S. troops because Iraq's own army and police aren't be ready to replace them. Some U.S. commanders privately doubt they would even be ready by 2012.
But many of the sectarian and ethnically based parties are reluctant to take a stand, fearing a backlash among Iraqis who are eager to see an end to the U.S. presence.
In the last three days, Maliki and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker have met separately with the head of the Supreme Council, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, presumably to lobby for the deal.
After meeting Thursday with Hakim, the prime minister told government television that "we don't call it a security pact but an agreement to withdraw the troops and organize their activities during the period of their presence in Iraq."
Some U.S. officials say there is a chance that some of the Iraqi proposals could be accommodated. But demands for more control over American troops are a "red line" for the Bush administration and Congress.
Failure to win agreement would be a huge embarrassment for President Bush in the waning days of his administration that was largely defined by the war.
Robert H. Reid is Baghdad bureau chief for the Associated Press and has covered Iraq since 2003.