Deal Pitched on U.S. Troops' Future in Iraq

After months of negotiations, the United States and Iraq have produced a draft agreement outlining how U.S. troops will operate in Iraq, and it is being circulated among the executive branches of both the U.S. and Iraqi governments.

Negotiations on the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, had been deadlocked for months over disagreements about a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal and over whether U.S. troops would be subject to Iraqi laws if they commit crimes.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is "comfortable" with the draft agreement, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said, indicating the key hurdle of legal immunity for U.S. troops in Iraq had been overcome -- though he did not reveal details.

However, a senior U.S. official told ABC News the deal would allow for American troops to be tried in Iraqi courts for crimes committed off-base and when not on missions.

The Iraqi government has pressed for lifting the blanket immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts that U.S. forces currently have in Iraq, should they be involved in crimes. Currently, any offenses are dealt with through the military judicial system.

As for the timeline, the senior U.S. official hadn't seen the exact language but said 2011 is listed as a hard date for withdrawal of troops. However, the source added, the agreement has caveats to account for conditions on the ground and wording that, based on those conditions, the Iraqis could ask the U.S. to keep its forces in Iraq longer with the next U.S. president's approval.

SOFAs are used to define how the American military operates in a foreign country. The United States has status-of-forces agreements with more than 100 nations around the world, including Afghanistan, Germany and Japan.

Gates has made phone calls to senior members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees to advocate for the draft Iraq SOFA, Morrell said.

In addition, Capitol Hill staffers will get briefed by the top U.S. negotiators and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker Friday morning, a senior State Department official told ABC News.

Morrell said that Gates wouldn't be calling lawmakers to support the agreements "if he didn't believe it adequately protected our forces in Iraq in really all facets of their operations there from combat to legal protections."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., issued a statement Wednesday expressing skepticism about any agreement that might subject American servicemen to Iraqi courts "in the middle of a chaotic war and in the absence of a judicial system that has been proven to be fair and protective of the rights of individuals."

Levin said he awaits a reading of the final text.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top ranking Republican, about the deal, a senior State Department official said.

Rice also has made calls to Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, and Vice President Abd al-Mahdi to encourage them to push for the deal's acceptance, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

"The Iraqis are considering the text. We are talking to the Iraqis," McCormack said.

Some Iraqi politicians are expected to review the draft beginning on Friday, although there is no timetable on a vote.

"Tomorrow the political council for national security will meet to discuss the draft of the security agreement," said Yaseen Majid, head of Maliki's press office on SOFA.

Still, some members of the Iraqi Parliament said they had not seen a copy as of Thursday, indicating the possibility of conflict in the approval process.

"This works against the passing of the agreement because there will be a lot of rumors about it and this could affect the members' decision," said Mahmood Uthman, a Kurdish member of parliament.

The SOFA is a contentious and much-discussed subject in Iraq, where religious leaders have spoken out both for and against the accord.

Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shiite religious figure in Iraq, has said the decision should be left to the Iraqis and the political parties. The reclusive leader who rarely speaks to the media told Maliki that he is calling for "including all Iraqi denominations into endorsing the deal through constitutional institutions."

Some believe that the pact is the best thing for Iraq and will prevent a coup in the fledgling democracy.

"The long existence of the American army is important for the security of Iraq," said 32-year-old Saad Jabbar. "This existence is a temporary security to give Iraqis a chance to rise and build their country."

The pact replaces U.N. Security Council Resolution 1511, which allowed the multinational force to operate in Iraq. The resolution expires at the end of this year.

Responding to speculation that the United States may seek alternatives, including an extension of the U.N. mandate, if a deal is not reached before the mandate expires, McCormack said, "We're focused on moving the SOFA process forward."