While Maliki preferred an earlier date 2011 is now set as a timetable to remove combat forces from Iraq. The final sticking point is immunity to US forces as well as private contractors like Blackwater.

Last month, Maliki said that the end of 2010 would be a reasonable goal for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops.

Facing challenges from within his own majority Shiite group, as well as from minority Sunnis and Kurds, Maliki pledged that there would be no “secret deals” with the United States. He said the agreement would be put to a vote in Iraq’s fractious parliament.

“Time is of the essence,” Zebari said at the news conference. “We are redoubling our efforts” to conclude the deal in time for it to be signed by Maliki and Bush before the U.N. mandate expires on Dec. 31, he said.

Without a formal, bilateral agreement, there is no international legal basis for U.S. forces to remain here.