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U.S. and Iraq near a 'bridge' deal on status of U.S. troops

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Several senior Iraqi officials close to the talks also see a similar scenario. "We are discussing a framework agreement and it could be agreed upon by the end of the month," says Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful Shiite politician who heads parliament's defense committee. He is a member of Iraq's Political Council for National Security, a body that includes Iraq's president and his two deputies, the prime minister and his two deputies, the speaker of parliament, and the heads of the main parliamentary blocs.

This council could make or break any deal and it is expected to meet in the coming days to discuss the specifics of the agreement, according to Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish parliamentarian.

When the SOFA talks were launched in March, also under discussion was a broader, framework document outlining the political, economic, and security relationship between the US and Iraq. While the SOFA pact is being postponed, the framework document is expected to be completed soon with an appendix that temporarily governs the status of US forces until a full SOFA is reached, say US and Iraqi officials.

For Washington, the three most important components of any agreement, according to the administration official, is the ability of US troops to operate in concert with Iraqi forces in what is still considered until now a "combat environment," retain the right to detain anyone deemed a security threat, and continue to be afforded immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts.

The US side is also eager to clinch a deal before the end of President Bush's term. SOFAs are "tedious and complex," take on average two years to negotiate, and require Congressional approval, says the US official. He notes that the SOFA with Israel took seven years to conclude. The bridge agreement under discussion now would be "legally binding" in many respects and only require Bush's signature, says the official.

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