Iraq and the U.S. pushed close to a deal Thursday setting a course for American combat troops to pull out of Iraqi cities by next June on the way to broader withdrawal from the long and costly war by 2011.

Subject to final approval by the top Iraqi leadership, the exit date for U.S. troops would be December 2011, although the Americans insist on linking that target to additional security and political progress.

President Bush has long resisted a timetable for pulling out, even under heavy pressure from a nation distressed by American deaths and discouraged by the length of the war that began in 2003. But that has softened in recent weeks.

The timing has major political importance in both Iraq and the United States.

The two contenders to replace Bush as commander in chief, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, spar almost daily over the future course of the war.

Obama wants all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months of his taking office, saying they are needed more urgently in Afghanistan. McCain says recent security improvements in Iraq show that decisions on the timing of further pullouts should be determined by circumstances on the ground rather than by prearranged timetables — a position the White House has vigorously held until recently.

The administration has inched toward the Iraqi view that setting at least a target date for withdrawal would make it politically palatable for Iraq’s government to accept a substantial U.S. troop presence beyond this year.

The rationale for the pullout is that Iraqi security forces will be ready to stand on their own, although it remains possible that some U.S. military training role would continue. In Iraq, provincial elections are supposed to be held later this year, followed by national balloting in 2009.

In one key part of the draft agreement, private U.S. contractors would be subject to Iraqi law, unlike at present, but the American side held firm in its insistence that U.S. troops would remain subject exclusively to U.S. legal jurisdiction, officials said.

There is an additional sense of urgency to complete a deal because the U.N. Security Council resolution that sets the legal basis for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is due to expire at the end of this year.

Asked about withdrawal, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said Thursday in Baghdad, “We have agreed that some goals, some aspirational timetables for how that might unfold are well worth having in such an agreement.” Her use of the term “aspirational” suggested that the timetables would be linked in some undisclosed way to the attainment of measurable progress in the security, political and perhaps economic fields.

Other U.S. officials said the deal includes agreement that by June 30, 2009, U.S. combat forces would be out of Iraq’s cities, set up elsewhere in the country in what the military calls an overwatch role — available to assist Iraqi security forces as needed, while continuing to train and advise Iraqi troops.

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