Iraqi PM changes team negotiating U.S. troops pact

r1.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has reshuffled and replaced the head of a negotiating team seeking to finalize an agreement on the future presence of U.S. troops here, a senior Iraqi politician said on Thursday.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have been locked in discussions over the security pact, which will provide a legal basis for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires at the end of this year.

Maliki replaced officials on the negotiating team, which had been headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Haj Hamoud, said Mahmoud Othman, a senior member of the Kurdish bloc in parliament.

The new team is headed by national security advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, Othman said. He described the move as a “normal” step that would allow more senior officials to make decisions.

“There was a technical delegation which has done its part in the negotiations and achieved results,” Othman said. The government has not so far confirmed any changes to the team.

U.S. and Iraqi technical negotiators have completed a draft agreement, which must be approved by Iraqi leaders and by parliament, but negotiations continue and U.S. officials stress there is no deal yet.

Maliki said earlier in the week that both sides had agreed that the approximately 144,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq would be required to leave the country by the end of 2011.

Washington had long refused to be held to an firm timeline for leaving Iraq, but it appears to have softened its objections as violence drops dramatically in Iraq and the Maliki government becomes increasingly assertive in security talks.

Iraq has also said it would like a future deal to end routine U.S. patrols of Iraqi cities and towns by mid-2009.

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