BAGHDAD  - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Monday he is negotiating a deal with Washington that will for the first time set a timetable for a withdrawal of foreign forces as part of a framework for a US troop presence into next year. It was the first time that Baghdad's Shiite-led government has made a pullout deadline a condition for a promised new agreement with the United States for a troop presence into 2009. "The direction we are taking is to have a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or to have a timetable for their withdrawal," a statement from Maliki's office quoted him as telling Arab ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates. "The negotiations are still continuing with the American side, but in any case the basis for the agreement will be respect for the sovereignty of Iraq," he added. It was the first time that the Shiite prime minister had specifically demanded a timetable for a US withdrawal, something that President George W. Bush has repeatedly refused to set. Bush and Maliki agreed in principle last November to sign a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq by the end of July to set the basis for a US troop presence beyond December this year when a UN mandate runs out. But discussions appeared to be deadlocked last month amid strong opposition from Iraqi politicians both Sunni and Shiite, with some Shiite leaders denouncing the proposed agreement as "eternal slavery." Shiite radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who has a broad popular base among the Shiite poor in cities across central and southern Iraq, has been particularly outspoken in his demands for a US withdrawal timetable. "We encourage any good move that could help the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq or arrive at a timetable for their departure," Sadr spokesman Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi told AFP in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. "We support the government in its bid to achieve this." Iraqi politicians have not only bristled at the duration of any continuing defence pact with the United States. They have also expressed reservations about how many bases Washington should retain, what powers the US military should continue to hold to detain Iraqi civilians, and what immunity US troops should have from US law. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said that Washington has agreed to one key demand from Baghdad, the scrapping of immunity from prosecution in Iraq of the tens of thousands of foreign security contractors operating in the country. Since the 2003 invasion, foreign security firms have operated virtually outside the law, neither subject to the Iraq legal system nor to US military tribunals " an exemption which has been a persistent source of outrage to ordinary Iraqis. Last Wednesday, Zebari said if the new US security pact were not finalised by July 31, there were two options for Iraq. One is to enter into a substitute bilateral agreement, the other to request the UN to extend its mandate by another year, he said. Zebari stressed that the United States could not stay in Iraq without an international legal framework, while any security arrangement would be for "one or two years" only, and not for decades. Pentagon rebuffs Iraq AFP WASHINGTON  - In a rebuff to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Pentagon said Monday that any timetable for a US withdrawal from Iraq would depend on conditions on the ground there. Asked about the prime minister's comments, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters: "With respect to timetables I would say the same thing I would say as respects to the security situation - it is dependent on conditions on the ground." Whitman said the United States had made clear "that we have no long term desires to have forces permanently stationed in Iraq." "But timelines tend to be artificial in nature," he said. "In a situation where things are as dynamic as they are in Iraq, I would just tell you, it's usually best to look at these things based on conditions on the ground." Maliki's comments to Arab ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates marked the first time he has specifically demanded a timetable for a US withdrawal. A UN mandate that provides the legal basis for the US military presence in Iraq expires at end of the year, and the two countries are negotiating a bilateral agreement to replace it.