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Maliki says talks over U.S. troop presence at an impasse

BAGHDAD — Two of Iraq's most powerful politicians took decisive but separate steps Friday that will affect U.S. interests and actions in the war-ravaged nation.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, speaking in Amman, Jordan, said ongoing talks with the U.S. on a Status of Forces Agreement "have reached an impasse." The impasse, he said, came at the end of the first phase of negotiations, with others to follow "until we reach a decision that ensures the sovereignty of Iraq."

Meanwhile, one of Iraq's most influential clerics, Muqtada al Sadr, divided his thousands of followers into a smaller armed contingent that would be authorized to attack American troops and a much larger group that he he called on to show restraint against the American occupation.

Armed resistance against the occupation "will be [done] exclusively by a group which will be soon authorized by us, for those who have experience," Sadr said. Only that group will be allowed to hold weapons, he added.

Maliki's statement came after the U.S. and Iraqi sides have been meeting for weeks, trying to hammer out an agreement that would set ou the conditions under which U.S. troops would operate in Iraq. The U.S. has signed such agreements with 80 other nations, but the Iraqis have objected to U.S. terms that they view as violations of their sovereignty,. The Americans had requested access to 58 military bases, immunity from prosectuion for both American troops and private contractors and control over Iraqi air space.

American negotiators have hoped the talks could be finished by the end of July, but Maliki's latest remarks — as well as those by influential members of parliament — make that deadline seem highly unrealistic.

"Negotiations will continue," Maliki said, "by adding new ideas from Plans A, then B, then C, until we reach the decision that ensures the sovereignty of Iraq."

In Baghdad U.S. Embassy spokesman Armand Cucciniello said it was clear to the U.S. that Maliki "was referring to the first draft" and that negotiations would continue, "based on the fundamental principle of Iraqi sovereignty."

Neither party announced a time or place for the next round of talks. "We are looking forward to a successful conclusion of the negotiations," Cucciniello added.

Sadr's statement was issued to his Mahdi Army militia and is the latest evidence that he is reacting to pressure from the U.S. and Iraqi military to disarm his followers, estimated at some 60,000. In August last year, he called for a cease-fire by his supporters, which was renewed in February for six months.

Followers with weapons "will direct them toward the occupier [the U.S.] only — in fact, it prohibits all other targeting," Sadr's statement said. The bulk of his militia would resist "Western ideology" through "cultural, religious and ideological means" and would be prevented from "carrying or using weapons."

The embassy's Cucciniello said he hadn't yet seen a copy of Sadr's statement and couldn't comment until he had.