|The US says it will consider keeping some of its troops in Iraq but wants legal immunity for its soldiers [EPA]
Iraq's political leaders have given the go-ahead for negotiations on allowing some US troops to stay in the country, hours after the US military chief urged Iraq to come to a "quick decision" on the controversial issue.
Leaders from Iraq's major parties agreed on Tuesday to allow Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, to negotiate with the United States over whether US troops should stay to train Iraqi forces after the December 31 deadline for their departure.
"The leaders agreed to authorise the Iraqi government to start the talks with the United States that are limited to training issues," the parties said in a joint statement.
Al Jazeera's Jane Arraf, reporting from Baghdad, said, "After weeks of wrangling and lots of US pressure it appears to be a breakthrough."
"After a five hour meeting in presidential compound here in Baghdad there was an announcement that a deal has been reached that presence of US military trainers would be raised in parliament," she said.
Tough questions remain
The agreement edges Iraq a step closer to deciding if some US soldiers will remain, but a final deal is distant, as tough questions remain on whether trainers would be civilian contractors or active US troops.
There is also a disagreement over the issue of granting legal immunity to US troops.
A US embassy official told the Reuters news agency that they were reviewing the decision.
Admiral Mike Mullen, the US military chief, had said on Tuesday that Iraq must decide as soon as possible whether it wants US troops to stay in the country.
Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said that US troops must be given immunity from prosecution as part of any agreement to keep them in Iraq and that this protection must be approved by the country's parliament.
Issue of immunity
Any agreement would still need to be approved by Iraq's parliament, where some of Maliki's allies have rejected any continued presence of US troops in Iraq.
The issue is putting pressure on the fragile multi-sectarian alliance of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish blocs and risks upsetting Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Shia militia once fought US troops but now is an ally of Maliki.
Sadr representatives refused to vote to approve the talks on training, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said after the meeting of Iraq's political leaders on Tuesday.
Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the National Alliance Shia parliamentary bloc and the parliamentary committee of security and defence, said it was too early to decide on the issue of immunity.
"Political leaders agreed that there was need for trainers, a move they have been resisting for some time. The move was also bitterly opposed by one of the allies of al-Maliki, the Sadrists," our correspondent said.
"Their representatives walked out of the meeting leaving what it appeared to be an important political reconciliation between Maliki and his closest rival Ayad Allawi," she said.
"Other elements of the plan appear to be that Allawi's party will get to nominate a defence and interior minister. Allawi may negotiate coming back into the government as head of powerful new security council.
"All these details of course are to be worked out, but all in all, an extremely significant first step."
More than eight years after the US-led invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein, the remaining 46,000 US troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave at the end of this year under a 2008 security deal.
Violence in Iraq has eased sharply from the heights of sectarian killings in 2006 and 2007, but daily attacks, bombings and killings still occur.
Gunmen often target local government and security forces to try to show authorities cannot provide security as US troops prepare to leave at the end of year.
Maliki has said repeatedly Iraqi army and police can manage internal threats, but Iraqi officers acknowledge gaps in their capabilities, especially in air and naval defence of their frontiers and in intelligence gathering.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies