By Khalid al-Ansary
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States asked Iraq for permission to keep troops there to 2015 but compromised with Iraqi negotiators on 2011, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said.
The bilateral security pact negotiations underscore the Iraqi government's increasing assertiveness in seeking to define the future of the U.S. presence as violence drops sharply across the country.
"It was a U.S. proposal for the date which is 2015, and an Iraqi one which is 2010, then we agreed to make it 2011," Talabani said in an interview with al-Hurra TV, a transcript of which was posted on his party's website on Wednesday.
"Iraq has the right, if necessary, to extend the presence of these troops," Talabani said from the United States, where he has been recovering from heart surgery earlier this month.
The anticipated pact 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.
U.S. officials said that the negotiations, although close to conclusion, continue, and declined comment on the specifics of Talabani's statements.
"As we've said, negotiations are ongoing and we are not going to get into the details until an agreement is concluded," an embassy official in Baghdad said.
Earlier this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced that the two sides had accepted the end of 2011 as the departure date for the approximately 145,000 U.S. troops in lraq.
Iraqi officials had previously expressed their wish to end routine U.S. patrols of Iraqi cities and towns by the middle of 2009.
"We hope that there will be flexibility and understanding from the two parties in order to reach an agreement," Maliki said on state television on Wednesday.
The Iraqi government has been seeking assurances not only on a gradual drawdown of U.S. military activities in Iraq but also on barring foreign troops from full legal immunity.
Washington has been reluctant to embrace fixed timetables for withdrawal and is unlikely to agree to allow Iraq to try U.S. soldiers in its own courts.
The emerging points of agreement also underscore the political pressures that Maliki faces at home more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. A final deal must be approved by the Iraqi parliament.
In another sign of Iraq's growing confidence in its ability to handle security challenges, the U.S. military said on Wednesday it would hand over control of once-restive western Anbar province to the Iraqi government within days.
Anbar was once the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency against the U.S. military and Shi'ite-led Iraqi governments and a haven for al Qaeda fighters, but is now one of the safest areas of Iraq.
The terms of the future U.S. troop presence in Iraq are under close scrutiny as the United States prepares for a presidential election in November.
Democratic contender Barack Obama is pushing for a 16-month timeframe for withdrawal, while Republican John McCain has argued against a set timeline for removing troops.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; writing by Missy Ryan; editing by Dina Kyriakidou)
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