WASHINGTON (AFP) — The White House said Monday it is not negotiating a "hard date" for a US withdrawal from Iraq despite Baghdad's call for a timetable, but did not rule out "time-frames" discussions with the Iraqi government.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said for the first time Monday that Iraq was seeking such a timetable as part of its negotiations with Washington on the status of US forces in Iraq beyond 2008.
But White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the talks were aimed at reaching agreement on a framework for future US-Iraqi relations and on the arrangements that will govern the US military presence.
"It is important to understand that these are not talks on a hard date for a withdrawal," he said.
"As Ambassador (Ryan) Crocker has said, we are looking at conditions, and not calendars -- and both sides are in agreement on this point," Stanzel said.
"When you make an agreement," he added however, "that doesn't mean that there won't be some understanding of time-frames."
He stressed that Bush has often spoken about timelines, as when he talked about the possibility of new troop withdrawals before year's end, and after "the last surge brigade leaves Iraq" by the end of July.
Stanzel steered clear of mentioning Bush's repeated statements against withdrawal timelines, apparently hoping to avoid an open contradiction with Maliki.
Earlier Monday, Maliki told Arab ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates that he was seeking a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops as part of the agreement, the prime minister's office said in a statement.
"The direction we are taking is to have a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or to have a timetable for their withdrawal," the statement quoted Maliki as saying.
Stanzel denied Maliki's reference to a memorandum of understanding on a timetable meant the negotiations about a broader strategic partnership were going badly.
"I don't think that the two are mutually exclusive," he said before portraying the memorandum as one of "a number of options for formalizing the relationship."
He stressed the goal was to reach an agreement before the end of the month.
Asked about Maliki's comments, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters: "With respect to timetables I would say the same thing I would say as respects to the security situation -- it is dependent on conditions on the ground."
Whitman said the United States had made clear "that we have no long term desires to have forces permanently stationed in Iraq."
"But timelines tend to be artificial in nature," he said. "In a situation where things are as dynamic as they are in Iraq, I would just tell you, it's usually best to look at these things based on conditions on the ground."
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment without further clarification of Maliki's remarks.
A UN mandate that provides the legal basis for the US military presence in Iraq expires at the end of the year, and Washington and Baghdad have agreed in principle to sign a Status of Forces Agreement by July.
But the negotiations have been more difficult than expected, and the prospect of an agreement in the final months of the Bush administration has aroused controversy in political circles in both Iraq and the United States.
Shiite and Sunni politicians have raised objections, and Democrats in the US Congress have expressed fears an agreement would tie the hands of the next president.
At the same time, the talks come amid a dramatic improvement in the security situation in Iraq that has allowed a drawdown of US forces, which now number 146,000, down from over 160,000.
The last of five additional combat brigades sent in last year to quell spiraling sectarian violence is scheduled to depart this month.
The top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, will review security conditions with an eye to further reductions this year.
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